College Hill Christians

by by by Christopher Unseth

illustration by by Becca Levinson


Many Christians on College Hill identify with the struggle to align a conservative Christian upbringing with the academic atmosphere of the university. Yet some Christian groups realize that the divide between Christians and other students is an imagined one, established by the stereotypes used to characterize faith groups. This barrier diminishes as Christians take it upon themselves to approach the Bible as scholars. For my part, it feels as if a scrawny, pale-faced and beaten boy inside my brain constantly reminds me: “Say something smart.” He’s my withered Christian past, the skeletal remains of a lively childhood spent in church and bible study.


To some, I am simply the product of missionary parents; to others I am the quintessential Midwest, non-denominational Christian. I was born into a Christian home. I attended youth group and was told to read my Bible each morning. I lived by these fundamental truths: the Bible is inspired by God, complete, and to be taken literally. Books by C.S. Lewis and other more obscure Christian authors shaped my ideas.

I attended Christian concerts, camps, and retreats that rotated from weekend getaways to undulating bouts with the Holy Spirit. I had very little to say against Rush Limbaugh’s radio show on the way to kindergarten each morning. I did not understand the gendered and discriminatory overtones in my language or the language of others. I was never directly exposed to a multicultural world like college.

Then I came to college and watched movies like “Jesus Camp” or read Roland Barthes. I coolly condemned my roommate to Hell and silently separated myself from weekend fun—never drinking, dancing, or getting high. I took classes on Karl Marx and post-Colonialism that presented me with alternative worldviews that I had never heard in a sympathetic light. I was called a hypocrite and homophobe, lumped into categories of human beings who were labeled racist or bigoted. And my faith went on life support.

There are ways in which we, as students, stereotype this type of person, a conservative Christian. While we rail against reductive stereotypes in the classroom, this one goes overlooked. Christians become a ‘type,’ and not able, in the eyes of others, to overcome their past. I am sometimes compared to Fred Phelps and Pat Robertson, either by friends or indirectly in classrooms, grouped into the rightwing political establishment. Half-hearted apologies are thrown at me from friends who smoke or drink too much while they stumble down the hallways. I am stereotyped as a moral-do-gooder, but it’s not a helpful epithet: my own story is more complicated than that


Very shortly after arriving at Brown, I joined a small and nascent Christian group. I trudged through rain and snow from Keeney to an old Benefit Street armory that accomodated my groups’ desire to sing songs and talk about God. It felt anonymous and clandestine. Some of my friends thought I was consciously opposed to their activities on Friday nights—and maybe during my first year, I was inclined to agree with them. But this is not the intent of Christian meetings, and as I come closer to graduation, I begin to understand how the stereotypes that divide Christians from the rest of their classmates reify what our teachers have told us of “those Christians”—saying that they are thoughtless, anti-intellectual, and inbred.

But Christian meetings, bible studies, and worship nights are never meant to divide the world into the sacred and the secular. That outlook would be counterintuitive to the goals that Christian fellowships aim to accomplish on campuses. Rather, they are places of integration and inclusion, where those who identify strongly with the life of Jesus Christ meet one another and attempt to answer the questions we may have. We sit in a circle to hear the many voices and perspectives on the Trinity, Scripture, and doctrine. It is implicit in our discussion that Christianity has taken many wrong turns throughout its history; this is not a mere footnote but inherent in every point made. We parse the difficult passages, struggle through complicated language and the esoteric doctrines that clouds each passage or comment about Christian living in the 21st century.

Bible study is a place of both spiritual and academic exploration. A friend  at the meeting concerns himself over the authorship of certain Pauline texts. I share stories in regards to the racist, anti-Semitic nature of Biblical scholarship in Protestantism, especially before World War II. Another friend offers a more mystical theological approach rooted in his experience of the text—one that looks at how the text affects both real and spiritual transformations in his life.  The people around me ably quote the Gospels, share from the specialized knowledge of their majors, and describe their identity crises around Christianity on College Hill.

Our discussion is not purely academic; it requires us to open up to the spiritual realm in some way. We must acknowledge that certain revelations come not from our intellectual pursuit, but from a realm where God exists and touches us in ways we sometimes have trouble perceiving. But academia is nevertheless a wonderful door to understanding God and deepening our experience of this unseen realm.


Bible study and my Christian journey model my life as a student. My groups’ discussion of faith occurs outside of established Christianity and beyond the status quo. We are twenty-somethings who listen to God-fearing pastors like John Piper, David Platt, and N.T. Wright but with a critical ear. We love the music of Bon Iver as well as Needtobreathe; we remember cassettes from DcTalk and wish you could listen to Jars of Clay. We are students living in the blur between academia and our faith upbringing, confusing the lines between “Christian” culture and world culture. On Sunday mornings, I drive a group of students to church while we listen to Hillsong and grudge the papers we need to write during the afternoon.

Much of Christianity has wended complicated postmodern paths to get to this point.  As Brown challenged my Christian faith in my sophomore year, indeed the very fabric of my self-identity, I was forced to confront the question: is Christianity right? I had been given the tools to understand texts as products of authors, steeped in their subjectivity and prejudices, while readers were equally subjective and able to draw infinite meaning from texts. Brown taught me to question the words of any text, to understand that each line of text is a complicated series of judgments by the author framed by a worldview. This disturbed me, calling into question the very essence of the Bible, down to its every word.


My experience is not unique. The questions I ask are the questions of 21st century Christians, and require support from the academic world. They require discussion springing from relationships that only occur around the intentional and communal poring over old texts—the very thing we all, as students, accomplish each day.

I attended a church in Minnesota while writing a thesis on a community where former, disgruntled Protestants and Catholics come together to discuss Christianity, rather than simply being taught Christianity. While I am usually uncomfortable with leaderless, undirected discussion, I realize that this is an age where my fellow human beings and I must engage in discussion over faith, not being swayed by what we see on the news and read on blogs. We have serious questions for one another and serious answers that can only happen through dialogue and the relation of our experiences, face-to-face. This means that while my experience at Brown attacked my Christian past, it has also served to open my eyes to the role I play as a Christian with my non-Christian peers.

My friends and I practice Christianity centered on the discussion of scripture and its historical life.  But we do not lose sight of Christ—his enduring principals that withstand the test of time and the importance of his death and resurrection—bringing us into a new and refreshing life that allows us to explore God’s love, even in school. It is rooted in a view of humanity that suggests each of us has done at least some small wrongs. Only through the perfectly lived life of Christ can we reconcile the difference between our depravity and God’s perfection. We Christians all affirm this!

The lines between denominations continue to loosen, while my friends and I relish the ecumenicism that crosses the long-standing border between Protestant and Catholic. Robert Wuthnow, a scholar at Princeton, shows that our generation is borne of a group that fails more and more to distinguish between the differences of Christian denominations and affiliations as we grow up in a world of multiculturalism and diversity.  He writes, “fewer people think their own denomination has a better grasp on the truth than other denominations, and fewer denominations themselves impose creedal tests that people must meet in order to become members or participate in church service.”

We, as Christians, are in the shared world of Christ-worship, coupling our knowledge and spiritual experience to transcend denominational difference. We need to unite our spiritual and academic experiences. I am shouting this from the mountaintops: they are one and the same! We are all in this together, living as Christians on College Hill who still meet in out-of-sight basements and using our God-given minds, trying to speak to our past and always remembering that the world demands intelligent answers.

CHRISTOPHER UNSETH B’11.5 wishes you would listen to Jars of Clay