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How to Stay Christian in Secular Society – Michael Kruger

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Kruger on how to stay Christian in a secular society.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Some of the issues most threatening to Christianity
  • The presuppositions that have led to a majority secular worldview in modern universities
  • How to give students the categories and framework for how to think
  • The importance of navigating the two extremes of naive overconfidence and unbridled suspicion
  • Pastoral counsel for those who doubt

Dr. Michael Kruger serves as president of Reformed Theological Seminary’s Charlotte, North Carolina campus, as well as the Samuel C. Patterson professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. Dr. Kruger is the author of several books, including Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (IVP Academic, 2018), Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Crossway, 2012), and Surviving Religion 101 (Crossway, 2021).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

There’s a story that is becoming all too common. It’s a story of a young man, or woman, who’s grown up in the church, made a profession of faith, been involved in youth ministry, served in the nursery, who has been to every camp imaginable, but then goes off to college, and within a year has renounced the faith. I’m sure most people listening know someone who fits this picture. Culture is secularizing rapidly, and the universities are the incubators of secularism. What started as ripples at the beginning of the Enlightenment has become a tsunami in the last few decades. I know a lot of parents and grandparents very worried about their children and grandchildren. The pressures to abandon the faith are real, and universities are often hostile to the Christian faith. And quite frankly, the church has failed these young students. To think that a 16-year-old who’s taking courses in chemistry and calculus can’t understand Romans and the problem of evil is beyond me.

Brian Arnold (01:07):

So the problem begins with us. And secularism isn’t going anywhere. As Christians, we must learn to withstand the magnetic pull, and especially help the younger generation to know why Christianity is a robust and well-rounded worldview. We can’t expect them to know the answers if we don’t. Well, to help us think through how to remain Christian while society is becoming increasingly secular, we have with us Dr. Michael Kruger. Dr. Kruger is the president and the Samuel C. Patterson professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’s the author of many books, including Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, Canon Revisited, and for our focus today, Surviving Religion, 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College. Dr. Kruger, welcome to the podcast.

Michael Kruger (01:59):

Thanks so much, Brian. Great to be on the show and great to be with you.

Brian Arnold (02:03):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today the question is going to be—how to stay Christian in secular society? And you’ve written this new book on Surviving Religion 101, really to your daughter. Is that right?

Michael Kruger (02:18):

Yeah, that’s right. So a couple of years ago, my oldest child, my daughter, Emma, started at my alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill. Almost 30 years to the day when I started there. And it was the thing that prompted me to finally write this book. I’d been planning to write it for 10, 15 years, you know how these things go, and I never got around to it. And finally, when she was packing her bags, I’m like—well, I’m a little late, but I’m going to get it done, and hopefully I’ll have it done before she graduates. And she’s a rising junior right now, so I’m excited to see it out.

Brian Arnold (02:47):

Well I think it’s a gift to the church, especially because I hear so many people asking this kind of question—why are we losing so many of our young people, especially when they go off to university. So just a word to our listeners today, this book is focused on some of the more vulnerable people in society, our young men and women going off to universities, but really it’s a larger issue that many of us are facing—and that is staying true to our Christian convictions when things are rapidly becoming more secular.

Michael Kruger (03:17):

Yeah, that’s right. So I picked one demographic within the Christian world that I think is struggling, namely college students. But as you indicated, this book is really for everybody. It’s for any believer who’s asking key questions about why they believe what they believe, and trying to survive their faith in a secular environment. And you don’t have to be 21 or 22 to feel that. You can be 29 or 30 in the business world. You can be 40, 45 at the peak of family life. But everybody asks these hard questions. So I hope that people will pick the book up, whether they’re college students or not, because I wrote it, I think, in a way that hopefully it’s accessible to anyone.

Brian Arnold (03:54):

Well, and I think you hit that goal. So you used the word surviving. Why did you say Surviving religion, 101?

Michael Kruger (04:03):

Yeah, we went round and round on that word. You know, some thought, you know, maybe the word’s too modest. Like, don’t we want to do more than survive? But I like the word. I think it captures the reality that a lot of Christian students, when they go off to college, are feeling like they’re fighting for their life. They feel like they’re sinking below the wave, so to speak. And it is an issue of survival—spiritual survival. And I make a point in the introduction that the first step is not conquering the world. The first step is just taking the next step, and making it through with your faith intact. And so I think that word captures the feelings that a lot of college students have, and captures the immediate issue, which is—just stay in the game, and don’t retreat and fall away. And that, ultimately, I think, will get you to the next stage of the Christian life.

Brian Arnold (04:51):

So I was graduating college in 2004, and I went to Eastern Kentucky University, kind of a smaller university, there in Kentucky. So you’re in the Bible belt, it’s 17 years ago, and even then I was feeling a lot of these pressures. When you kind of feel like you’re the only Christian in the class, and the professor has kind of hostile views against the Christian faith. And I think you would agree, it’s only ratcheted up in those last 17 years.

Michael Kruger (05:20):

Absolutely. I mean, on one level, I think we all know that struggling with your faith in college is not a new thing. In fact, in my opening chapters, I have a quote from the 1930 edition of The Atlantic. Which, you know, here we are early 20th century, and the person in the quote, Philip Wentworth, basically says—everybody knows college challenges your faith. So even back in the twenties and thirties, everyone knew this was a problem. But I think you’re right—it’s only gotten worse, and things are very much moving in a post-Christian direction. Whereas in prior generations you felt like you weren’t the only guy around, or the only girl around that felt this way. Now you’re very much feeling like the minority, and it’s becoming harder and harder.

Brian Arnold (05:59):

And one of the things I appreciate about the book is you tackle the issues that you think are the primary ones that students are going to face that is going to cause them maybe places of doubt, uncertainty. So what are some of those? Let’s pick out a couple of those you see as kind of the issues of the day that are the most threatening to young people.

Michael Kruger (06:20):

Yeah. So I have 15 chapters on 15 issues, and then of course, a number of sub-issues within them. And that was a hard choice, figuring out what to tackle, because there’s so much. And maybe I’ll need a volume two some day to tackle all the other stuff I left out. But I hit a lot of the key stuff. I mean, one of the earliest chapters, I tackle a key question, which I think is one of the most untouched questions, actually. I mean, a lot of the questions are very common—you know, science in the Bible, what about evolution, the issue of miracles, reliability of the Bible, problem of evil. Okay, so I tackle a lot of those. But at the very beginning of the book, I tackle a question which usually is not articulated, which is—I think most Christians, when they go to college, the reason they struggle is because they just can’t get past the statistical anomaly that all the smartest people in their little world don’t believe the Bible, and they are seemingly the only ones that do.

Michael Kruger (07:08):

And they look around their campus, their class, they see all these people with PhDs, who all think the Bible is crazy. And they think to themselves, what’s the statistical likelihood that I’m right, and all of them are wrong? And that, I think, is really the key issue. And that’s going to haunt students. So I try to tackle that by diving into how people form their beliefs, and why they believe what they believe, and the role of worldviews. How your professor is not neutral, and how really no one’s neutral. And you just can’t count noses to figure out what to believe, because people don’t form their beliefs just on evidence. They form their beliefs on many other factors as well. But I think that was an early chapter for a reason. That has to set the tone for the whole book and remind people that beliefs are formed based on earlier, more foundational beliefs you already have. And unless you know that, unless you look at those earlier foundational beliefs, you’re not going to understand what’s happening.

Brian Arnold (07:59):

So why so many in these universities—why do they have that set of beliefs? What are the other factors playing in? I think it was a study that George Bush did back in the mid-kind of-early-2000 range, where they found that only 8% of professors identified conservative. And I mean, that’s more of like a political kind of poll, but I think if we did the same thing for religion, we might even find the number fewer than that. And so, what are some of those presuppositions and worldview clashes that are happening that make the university particularly susceptible to that?

Michael Kruger (08:38):

Yeah. So I actually bring up some of these statistics in my opening chapter, interestingly, and it’s gotten worse, even from the study you’re alluding to. Now, in some secular universities, there’s staggering disparity between what we might call conservative views and liberal views. So why it, that the universities are like this? Well, there’s a whole bunch of historical reasons, but I think there’s just a general principle, which is—you have to look at diversity beyond just the way that our culture looks at diversity. Our culture looks at diversity mainly in terms of ethnicities and race and gender. And those are all important issues that need to be looked at. But what universities are supposed to also be doing, is looking at diversity of ideas. And this is what universities were originally founded to do, which is to get all the ideas on the table.

Michael Kruger (09:23):

Let’s have a round table discussion about them, let’s let everybody be in the game. And unfortunately, in the last 20, 30, maybe even 50 years, universities have become more ideologically driven, where they’re not interested in all of the ideas, they’re interested in their ideas. Which means it’s become very intellectually homogenous. And intellectually homogenous people tend to pick people that think just like them, and hire people that just think like them. And now it’s very difficult to get hired at a secular university having the ideas of an evangelical Christian. So it’s a tough scenario, and I think that’s the lurking issue behind the book that I don’t really address directly. But our culture is going to have to face that problem—the problem of our modern universities—sooner or later.

Brian Arnold (10:02):

I think that’s really perceptive, on a number of levels, to even just begin there. I could think of a young girl who was in my ministry. So I was pastoring a church, and really overseeing the youth. And I always was kind of curious as to where she would land when she went to college. And sure enough, she left the faith and kind of wanted to be seen as intellectual within that crowd of her university professors. And she’s a very gifted thinker and student. But to begin there—the nose count, like you said, I think is important. And I agree with you. I think the whole university piece is going to have to be rethought in years to come. Not even just thinking of financial debt that’s accruing because of it, but really the worldview clashes as Christians are saying—I think en masse now—why would I send my beloved child to a center of indoctrination?

Michael Kruger (10:54):

Right. Yeah. And get charged a lot of money for it?

Brian Arnold (10:58):

And get saddled with debt.

Michael Kruger (10:58):

It stings enough in its own right, but then you get, you know, you look at the paycheck, like—I’m actually paying for this to happen. And that’s a tough pill to swallow.

Brian Arnold (11:06):

It is.

Michael Kruger (11:06):

And, you know, in the book, of course I realized that Christians would make all kinds of educational choices about Christian versus non-Christian schools. But one thing that I pointed out in other conversations is that this isn’t just a problem at Christian univers—I mean, at non-Christian universities. This problem is also in Christian universities. And what I mean by that, is even at universities that have the label Christian, there are still worldview challenges that happen there. And so I hope that the listeners, whether they go to a secular school or not in college, realize that it’s…everybody’s going to have to deal with these questions sooner or later.

Brian Arnold (11:41):

I think that’s an important word. Yeah, you’re not safe just because they’re going to a Christian college. Because I know of many…I had a conversation yesterday with two young Christian college students who are struggling with even some of the things that their professors are saying at those…

Michael Kruger (11:56):

Absolutely. Yeah. It’s hard to think….I mean, what the school might believe institutionally is not necessarily what every individual faculty member believes or teaches. And I know that sounds like common sense, but a lot of people really think that there’s no difference between the two. And I’m like, well, you may be in for a surprise when you get there.

Brian Arnold (12:15):

So, absolutely. I would love to go point by point through the book. I think you bring up a lot of important issues. We simply won’t have time for that. What would you say to maybe a parent that’s listening right now, very concerned about these kinds of issues, and says, you know, “Dr. Kruger, Dr. Arnold—okay. You guys are professional theologians. You’ve been pastors. But what about me as a parent?” Or if a pastor listening who says, “I got my MDiv, but I don’t know if I can address all the issues of the day to the level of a university professor. So what hope do we have?”

Michael Kruger (12:51):

Yeah. Well, I mean, there’s a number of responses to that. I think that there is a sense in which this is a looming giant that some people feel like you just can’t beat. But I would say, you’ve just got to take it in smaller levels. We’re not…we don’t need to train our students to go toe to toe with Bart Ehrman. That’s just not a possibility. And it’s not something that’s realistic. I think we need to train our students to have the right categories, the right sort of framework for how to think. And realizing—and I try to cover this in the book to some extent—realizing that even if they don’t have an answer to hard questions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that what they believe is false. So actually the task for parents and churches is a lot more basic than I think we’ve created in our minds.

Michael Kruger (13:32):

We tend to think, well, I’ve got to create little PhD students here, and I just disagree. I think we’ve got more work to do, but not that way. I think we’ve just got to give them the basic categories and tools to know how to deal with non-Christian belief. And the honest truth is the church needs to do some soul-searching here, because I don’t think we’re doing that. I think what we tend to do is think that my child is best served by protecting them from any discussion and any exposure to non-Christian thinking. And so the first time they’re ever having to deal with these issues is when they’re in a dorm room, out of the house. And I’m like—no, it shouldn’t be that way. They should be dealing with these issues long before that. And I think that’s where we have to do some serious soul-searching in the church.

Brian Arnold (14:09):

And that’s something that pastors and parents can do right now—is not shield them from those things. So let’s talk about that. How does the Bible apply to this? And like you said—thinking categorically, and not that they have to be an expert in organic chemistry in order to answer questions that might arise against their worldview.

Michael Kruger (14:26):

Yeah. I think the honest truth is that parents are as scared as some of the students. Meaning they just feel like, “I can’t go there, because I’m going to upset my child’s faith.” And you know, one analogy I give is it’s not that different than parents who protect their child from germs. You know, there are germaphobe parents who wipe down every counter with, you know, some sort of alcohol wipe, and make sure that the kids wash their hands 30 times a day. And you think you’re helping your kid, but actually it’s shown now that if your kid doesn’t get exposed to certain germs at an early age, their immune systems can stall, and not kickstart. They actually need some germs, a limited amount at least, to get rolling on their immune system. And I think there’s an analogy there spiritually. I think Christian parents need to realize there is that sense in which they need to be exposed to some spiritual germs, so to speak. So their spiritual immune system kicks in, and they begin to have good answers to these questions.

Brian Arnold (15:20):

I love that illustration. I think that really speaks to a lot of these problems. Get that immune system kick-started by not shielding your kids from harder questions. You have this statement in your book, that I think is really profound, about helping these students strike a balance between unbridled suspicion and naive overconfidence. Help explain that to us.

Michael Kruger (15:45):

Yeah. So when it comes to sending off kids to college, and when it comes to the kids themselves going off to college, I’ve just noticed two extremes. And I try to navigate them in the book. I mean, one extreme we’ve already hinted at, which is this sense that, “Oh, I’m impervious to all kinds of challenges. I grew up in a Christian church, nothing…no problems here. I can handle anything thrown at me.” And so there’s this, you know, as I put it, naive overconfidence, that, you know, there’s nothing to be concerned about. I don’t have to have my guard up, and I can just go in, you know, skipping lightly through the halls of academia. Well, I think we’ve shown that that doesn’t work. You’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to take it seriously. It’s…it can be a dangerous world. But there’s also the flip side.

Michael Kruger (16:27):

And I’ve noticed this a lot too. And I think this is equally damaging. The flip side is you go into the university context with this sort of martyr complex—”Everybody’s out to get me.” Almost like paranoia. “Every one of my professors is Darth Vader.” And that’s not only just untrue, but it’s also counterproductive. It makes evangelicals these people on campus that are sort of cut-off, hyper-suspicious of everybody. And it creates the sense that they don’t really get to engage in the questions that need to be engaged. And so I hope both extremes can be avoided. I don’t want anyone reading my book to fall into either of those extremes, but I think the main extreme I’m trying to avoid in my book is the “everybody’s out to get me” extreme. It’s just not true. And I think I can sort of just have everybody take a deep breath and realize, yes, there’s challenges, but let’s not overplay them.

Brian Arnold (17:20):

And I think that, again, just thinking framework—how are these students even preparing their minds to enter that kind of setting? I think that’s a really helpful way to say—”avoid these ditches, because neither of them are going to serve you well when you’re in your university setting.” Well, maybe as we kind of wind down here, perhaps there’s a student even listening who feels themselves, after this freshman year, maybe they’re entering their sophomore year of college, a little bit unsettled. What pastoral word would you give to those who doubt? I think about like Jude 22—”Have mercy on those who doubt.” Doubt doesn’t mean you’ve lost your faith, or things like that. So how would you counsel them?

Michael Kruger (18:01):

Yeah, I have a couple of thoughts. You touched on the first one, which is my last chapter, chapter 15, on doubt. And that’s a really important chapter for me, and I hope for the readers, because I want people to not feel ashamed of their doubt, not hide it. Not pretend like that makes them a second-class Christian. I think this subject needs a lot more attention in our Christian culture. And I think we’ve sort of made doubt, sort of this new form of shame in the Christian world. And it leads to these students who don’t want to admit they have questions. And they don’t ask their questions. So if a student is struggling with that, realize that the doubt is pretty normal in the Christian life. Now, on the flip side, you don’t leave your doubt there.

Michael Kruger (18:45):

You try to fight against it, right? You don’t foster your doubt, but just having it doesn’t mean that you’re going through something unusual. The other piece of advice I would give is, comically, what I call my “horror movie advice.” And I mentioned this in my book, too, and I’ll mention it now. I love watching scary movies. Everybody’s got their favorite movie genre, and it’s unusual for a person like me, I suppose, to have horror movies as one of their favorites. But I really love some of them. And I…if you ever watch a horror movie, you know that the protagonist always makes the same mistake. And that mistake is—they go off alone, and in the dark. Every time. And you’re watching the movie going, “What are you doing?”

Michael Kruger (19:22):

You know—”Go back! Why are you going off alone? And why are you going off alone in the dark? It doesn’t make any sense.” Well, the same thing can be true spiritually, especially at college. Is that my biggest piece of advice for these students is—when you face challenges, when you face doubt, don’t make the horror movie mistake. Don’t wander off alone and in the dark, but stay in the group and stay in the light. And the way you do that, is you find a good church. You find a good Christian fellowship. You tackle your questions and doubts in community, work through them with the people that you know love Jesus, and take them in a place where there’s a group and it’s in the light. And I think you’ll find that one step alone will be a game changer for most people.

Brian Arnold (19:59):

That was the best advice I got when I went to college, was get into campus ministry, get plugged into a local church. It fed my soul. It grew me as a believer. And my walk with Christ was sustained through those things of being in a secular university kind of setting. I love us ending there, on that piece of advice. And with the reality, for everyone listening—secularism is here to stay. But we’ve got the Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised the gates of hell will not overcome the church. And the Bible is true. Christ is Lord. And with those pieces of knowledge, moving forward, we can, I think, withstand the tide that’s coming, and have a robust Christian faith in the midst of it. Dr. Kruger, thank you so much for joining us today.

Michael Kruger (20:43):

Thanks, Brian. It’s been fun. Great to be with you.

Outro (20:47):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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