Faith Goes to School

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October 1, 2002

 

Faith Goes to School

The Duke Youth Academy, now in its second year, is a Bible-study camp--except that it's not a camp and the director, Fred Edie, is not the peace-sign-flashing, group-hug-giving type.

As the principal architect of the two-week curriculum, Edie sees the academy as a chance to show the seventy high-school juniors and seniors that there's another way to the top--or that there's another "top" altogether. "Someone needs to tell kids that working hard in school so they can get a good job, so they can attract a good partner, so they can combine incomes and buy a nice house, is not an adequate vision of the good life."

Getting into the habitat: "We serve them and we are served"

Getting into the habitat: "We serve them and we are served".

Edie's presence is not imposing. He does not pound the pulpit, stomp, convulse, or shake his fists; Edie is not Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke Divinity School's Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics and theological provocateur. But while quieter, he is just as passionate. Before the Academy kicked off in early July, Edie had to come up with a theological blueprint for the direction the course would take, something that could serve as an all-encompassing metaphor for partaking in the Christian faith. His idea was baptism.

According to Christian doctrine, baptism is every Christian's rite of initiation--Heaven's entry-visa, if you will. And although it's the physical component of being formed in the faith, as Edie puts it, "it's sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of the sacraments." So, despite doubt and confusion as to how the metaphor would work, Edie decided to give baptism the respect it deserves, making it the hermeneutical principle that would underpin all of the Academy's teachings.

The Academy, one of thirty like it at divinity schools and seminaries across the country, is funded by a $1.2-million Lilly Endowment grant over three years. Twenty-two adult mentors, mostly divinity school students, accompany the teens for these two weeks and stay connected with them for the rest of the year.

The Academy's days began with morning prayer in the silence and semi-darkness of Duke Chapel, an unusual place to find young people, in light of today's culture. Says Amy Laura Hall, assistant professor in the divinity school and an Academy speaker, "After World War II, when industrial-consumerism was trolling for new markets, 'youth' became a particular phenomenon. 'Youth' were told that the only way to have an identity was to buy the crap pushed on them by radio and 'teen' magazines. Their lives became shallow and cheap."

New vistas: learning that service to the community is not self-serving

New vistas: learning that service to the community is not self-serving.

Even as materialism has begun to eclipse the religious world at large, Hall says, Duke's own religious life is not immune from the currents of wider culture. "It's the case for professors as well as students," she says. "Duke is part of this 'new,' ambitious, and somewhat foolish South. We're overly busy trying to prove that we're on the 'cutting edge' of scholarship, and we take our supposedly crucial projects much too seriously. Even after September 11, there wasn't any massive pause in our self-worship and frenzied endeavors."

Duke's motto, Eruditio et Religio, speaks to the celestial spirit of the university's earliest leaders. That was one point made by the dean of the divinity school, L. Gregory Jones M.Div. '85, Ph.D. '88, who spoke at the Academy. According to Jones, "Duke has consistently been a model for joining together rigorous education with understanding the significance of religious faith. That is a more complicated task now as the student body and the faculty represent diverse religious commitments (including those who have none), but the importance of the issues and the support given across the university to religious faith and exploration is quite strong."

Among the many on-campus expressions of Religio, the divinity school is in the peculiar position of having to attract Duke students to a vocation that is somewhat un-Duke, where success is free of its financial connotations and the testing-wrought competitive impulse is not a prerequisite for getting the job. "Recruiting high-quality students is always a challenge," says Jones, "but it has become more of a challenge in a culture where high-paying salaries have become so much of a focus."

To counteract the cultural pull, the divinity school, through the efforts of the Academy, seeks out those who typically swim against the tide, giving them an alternative to the norm--and, if post-Hauerwas-homily facial expressions are any guide, leaving them a little stunned. Hauerwas, connecting with his audience even as he was shocking them, recalled his own Bible camp days: "It was hot and you were trying to make out with the girl from Plano and someone's singing 'Kum-bah-yah, my Lord.' "

Seventy percent of the seventy teens in the Youth Academy are United Methodists, the rest being Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian--all varying somewhat in practice and conviction, but all Christian. The students are characterized by a professed, though not blind, faithfulness and a probing inquisitiveness. They were selected from more than a hundred applicants, not by their SATs or GPAs but by their ability to articulate ideas as reflected in written essays. "The only requirement we felt was critical," says Edie, "was that the student have the capacity to express himself or herself clearly to the group."

Kevin Dirksen is seventeen, red-headed, and freckled, and here because his best friend, whose dad is a pastor, came last year and said he loved it. Kevin isn't so sure if he wants to become a pastor himself. But as he looks at colleges, he is certain of those criteria that make it the "right place." He wants a school with a religious focus and a small environment, and a place "that stresses accountability." I asked Kevin if he felt that he was any different from his friends because he's attending an academy to study his faith under renowned theologians during his summer vacation. He speculated that the difference between him and his friends, who are "mostly Christians," is that for them "[faith] is mainly a paper thing, whereas I want to put mine into action."

Megan Choate is from Texas. She's a senior in a high school where most teens, she says, might call themselves Christians, but tend to confuse that with wearing bracelets that ask WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) and singing in church. "We're here learning about what a Christian is and what one is not. We're discussing issues most people tiptoe around, like racial prejudice and abortion, things that are very difficult to agree on--and often we don't. But we aren't here to get that warm, fuzzy feeling. We learn in depth about who Christ really was, and that's not always pleasant. He was poor and hated, and his death was gruesome."

Wednesday was community-service day, when everyone headed off campus. Jennifer Copeland, the director of community service programs for the divinity school, made it clear that in no way is self-adulation part of the process. "This isn't a thing where we go out and serve people and then pat ourselves on the back. It's a two-way street. We serve them and we are served; we receive something valuable in return that we wouldn't have otherwise."

Self-serving community service? It had an appealing, two-for-one-deal ring to it, so I met Copeland and some students at a house that a Habitat for Humanity group had recently finished building near Roxboro Street. It was a one-level, three-room place with a small kitchen and a slight porch. I wondered if they knew that no one lived there yet, and if so, if they would still agree to work for nothing in return. But when I arrived, I saw these kids painting with vigor and enjoying themselves.

In Fred Edie's plenary presentation, "Baptismal Imaginings: Swimming with God in the Waters of Life," he stressed to students that "Christian faith is made, not born," and that these two weeks would require of them some very deep thinking--what he labeled "hard swimming," because "you don't get it from osmosis." The metaphor held water, and the students spent their week swimming away.