Beth Felker Jones, Professor of Theology
I’m often asked how I’ve seen students change over the years, and strikes me most is that they seem to be becoming increasingly reticent. The Christian students I meet believe the same gospel truths Christian students believed when I started teaching, but something seems to be making it difficult for them to voice those truths. They’re worried, perhaps, that truth cannot be spoken with grace, and so they retreat into polite silence.
I can speculate about the causes of this silence. Perhaps they already know, or think they know, what their classmates believe, because they’ve seen those classmates post on social media or because they sort those classmates into categories. Perhaps the much bemoaned “polarization” of our society means they don’t want to hear from anyone they think may come from the other “side.” Or maybe they know they don’t fit the “sides” as defined by the media and don’t have the tools to articulate something different. My guess is that these factors contribute to classroom silence, but the biggest factor of all is that my kind, thoughtful students simply don’t want to hurt anybody.
Their kindness is a joy to be celebrated, but the increasing unwillingness to speak that seems to come with it is not tenable for the Christian life, which is shaped fundamentally by the imperative to share—to speak—the good news.
Christians are called to be people who use words to love God and neighbor and to share the truly good news of Jesus with a world that needs that news. As a teacher who wants to equip my students to be Christians who testify, speaking words of truth, I want to give them ways to understand the deep losses that come with polite silence.
I hope that a Christian theology of the body might be such a help to them. For Christians, the body matters because we know that it was created by God and that God has promised to finally redeem it in resurrection. This means that we as Christians have reason to embrace the embodied mess that is communication.
Jesus is the Word made flesh, and we who are followers of Jesus know that our words aren’t just words, they’re embodied words. We can’t separate the words of truth, which we’re called to speak in love, from our persons. Medium and message are one.
Students are deeply relational, and if that value can lead to a silence that fears hurting the other, perhaps it can also connect to courage to speak the truth in love, to embody words about Jesus and to speak words that come from who we are as those who are Christ’s body. Speaking the truth is not about standing on a soapbox, pouring forth information. It is about doing what Jesus did when he came to dwell among us, living in the world God loves, among the people God loves, and speaking the words that are born of that love.