The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University

Reviewed by David Seljack

The Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 2 (Spring 2003)

Paul A. Bramadat. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Mennonites and others who attended a Christian college affiliated with a larger secular university will find a way of understanding their experiences by reading this enlightening and useful book. Written from a social scientific perspective, The Church on the World’s Turf studies the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) at McMaster University, a group of about 200 members (almost exclusively white, seventy percent female) at a large, culturally diverse, secular university of some 14,000 students in Ontario’s industrial heartland.

Given the myriad studies on conservative Christian groups in the United States and Canada, it is amazing that this is the first social scientific study of an evangelical student group. The majority of such studies employ the “churchas- fortress” metaphor. According to this model, conservative Christian groups or institutions serve as a fortress against liberalism and modernity, with their individualism, materialism, and loose sexual morality.

While Bramadat accepts that the ICVF operates as a fortress against secularism for these students in some cases, he balances this idea with the metaphor of IVCF as bridge. He argues that the Fellowship allows students to reach past their smaller, denominational identity to other Christians and to their secular counterparts, and provides a means to negotiate with the secular university. So, for example, students learn not to interrupt biology classes on evolution with their ideas on creationism. Instead, they treat the theory of evolution as “one theory among many,” learn it, describe it on tests and papers, but distance themselves from it intellectually and psychologically. On the social side, they participate in student activities and do not segregate themselves. However, they refuse to participate in the “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” culture that dominates much of student life. They use the ICVF to facilitate contact with other students on their own terms (at least as much as possible). Bramadat emphasizes the freedom and creativity behind these negotiated contracts and the myriad ways that individual students and the ICVF work out their relationships with others.

Anyone who has attended a Christian college at a secular university could easily apply this model to their own experience. When I attended St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, my friends and I were very much open to what the secular university had to offer. Still, St. Mike’s provided a space where we were allowed to nourish and celebrate an alternate worldview with its unique values, practices, and beliefs.

What issues separate IVCF students from their secular counterparts? Some are obvious. Christians attend a university in which the dominant culture disputes or dismisses some of their most important truth-claims. For example, one cannot claim the existence of God as a “fact” in a secular university in the way one can at a Bible college or church school. But in formal subjects, most students do not feel that their beliefs are challenged. It is usually only in classes where topics such as evolutionary biology, sexual and social ethics, and philosophy are discussed that any conflict is felt. Bramadat shows how students negotiate that tension in a variety of ways. His students report that they are not alienated so much from the curriculum as from the youth culture as it is expressed in student life. Sexual promiscuity, swearing, and parties marked by heavy drinking are all features of life on campus, especially in residence. Conservative evangelicals establish a parallel social network through ICVF, for example, organizing social events without alcohol.

While some tensions are resolved rather easily, others are more difficult. For example, conservative Christians steadfastly maintain a “different but equal” stance on woman’s rights. Men are to hold the leadership positions in society, church, and the family. Given that seven of ten IVCF members are women, how do they negotiate between their traditional beliefs about the role of women and the challenges to those beliefs posed by liberal individualism and feminism? Bramadat argues that, through IVCF, women have developed complex, innovative, and empowering strategies that allow them to remain loyal to evangelicalism and, in their words, ‘stretched’ by the liberal educational institutions that more and more of them are deciding to attend” (101).

The strength of this book is its “postmodern” ethnographic approach. Bramadat takes on the role of participant/observer and befriends his subjects, listening to them patiently, interviewing them endlessly, questioning them gently, and noting their responses responsibly. Through this method of non-judgmental and patient observation, Bramadat can learn how the IVCF functions for these students without rushing to the conclusions of deprivation or social control theory.

Bramadat’s tolerant and patient style is challenged by his subjects’ sometimes exclusivist claims and chauvinistic attitudes. For example, many IVCF members believe that adherents of the world religions are mistaken or, worse, misled by Satan. Even other Christians are dismissed because they do not use the special vocabulary of the conservative evangelicals, that is, they don’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus as their “Lord and Savior.” So Roman Catholics, encountered in great numbers during an IVCF mission to Lithuania, are not Christians. While Bramadat finds some of their attempts to convert him condescending, he is also moved by their genuine concern for his spiritual welfare. Still, he criticizes their judgment on world religions as well as their ignorance of fundamental facts about life in Lithuania. One wonders if Bramadat could not have applied this humanistic critique to other elements of conservative Christian belief. Is evangelical Christianity compatible with the freedom and dignity of women willed by God? Christian feminists will wonder why the author does not pursue this question more aggressively. Moreover, Bramadat fails to mention, never mind critique, conservative Christian attitudes to alternative sexual orientations. Surely this is an issue that separates conservative Christian students from their peers and one that would be open to his humanistic criticisms.

The Church on the World’s Turf would make an excellent text in a “Religion in Canada” or sociology of religion course. Administrators and supporters of religious colleges will also learn much about themselves, their institutions, and their students from this interesting, accessible study.