Carving fish in the sand

Swimming into McGill's Christian community

Holly Wethey, Student Life Editor

Every time I’m in the lecture hall analyzing a poem, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, as an English student, I am thinking of the poem as a critic would—sifting and weighing the words. But on the other hand, I am reading as a Christian, conscious of every gesture to God, every biblical allusion. When my English class on John Milton read Paradise Lost, I might have thought immediately of Milton's use of blank verse, but instead I was struck by how the speaker articulates a love for God: "Because we freely love, as in our will / To love or not; in this we stand or fall.”

In moments like this, I start to look around me for signs, searching for others like me. A shared affinity for gospel rap or a "Jesus is King" laptop sticker could reveal a fellow believer and provide comfort in an environment that can sometimes feel secular in the most isolating of ways. These little allusions have become the modern day equivalent of carving fish in the sand. In what is often a cold academic environment, finding other Christians can be difficult, and talking about one's faith even harder.

A Tough Crowd

According to a survey conducted by Jesus Film, a Christian film project, 22 per cent of Christians say fear prevents them from sharing their faith. As for myself, I wish discussing my faith didn’t make me nervous. As a Christian, I believe my purpose is to love God and extend His love to others; while other aspects of my life are certainly of value to me, at my very core, I am Christian. Consequently, I often ask myself, how can so many people know me without being acquainted with the most important part of me?

After a year of online classes and activities, as well as a desire to find a Christian community at McGill, I became involved with Power to Change (P2C), a Christian organization on campus dedicated to sharing Jesus with students at McGill. The space of worship, care, and love P2C fostered has been indispensable to me. It's no surprise that research attests to the positive impact faith can have on one's health, including coping with physical and mental illness.

At one event where Christian professors discussed their experiences at McGill, we spent time reflecting on barriers that prevent Christians from sharing their faith. Though some felt confident discussing their faith with others, many of us expressed feelings of fear or unease.

Anka Johow, a staff member at P2C, is well aware of the challenges of sharing one’s faith and being rejected by peers.

"Because of the highly scientific and logic-filled environment of university, it is a huge challenge for Christian students to profess their faith in Jesus, something that they can’t simply prove or explain since it is faith," Johow explained. "They often feel intimidated and not free to share about it."

JP Ponce, U2 Science, mentioned that while he finds people are normally either neutral or intrigued when he shares his faith, it can still be a difficult conversation to have.

"I do sometimes fear they may place me in a box of what they think a Christian is," Ponce said. "It's something that comes with tons of misconceptions. I'm not concerned with them disliking me for being Christian, but I'll really be sad if they think I'm something that I'm not because they've had terrible experiences [with Christians] in the past."

Despite these fears, Ponce emphasized that most people respond better to talking about faith than you imagine they will. YesHEis, an initiative of Christian Vision (CV), a global Christian charity, shares helpful tools for starting conversations about Jesus with others. One of the most important tips is meeting people where they are at—that is, understanding where people are coming from and being honest and transparent. Unfortunately, Christians have a reputation for being dogmatic or preachy when evangelizing, but this is the exact opposite of evangelism. This is why it is so important to approach conversations about Jesus in a loving, non-judgmental manner.

Of course, while these fears of sharing my faith are partially personal, they aren’t that irrational considering the wider cultural context of Quebec. The province has a complicated relationship with religion. Before the Quiet Revolution, Quebec was heavily religious—in fact, the province was one of the most Catholic societies in the world, home to thousands of priests and closely tied to Rome. In many ways, this fuelled a backlash and initiated a turn toward secularism as political leaders called for the diminishment of the Catholic Church's role in society. The victory of the Liberal Party in Quebec in 1960 triggered the Quiet Revolution, where the party pushed for the secularization of the state. The government took control of health care and education, which had previously been under the purview of the Church.

More recently, in order to strengthen the province’s commitment to secularism, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) introduced Bill 21, which prevents public officials from wearing religious symbols while exercising their public duties. Instead of ensuring the separation of the church and state, the bill discriminates against minorities, including Muslim women who wear hijabs, Jews who wear kippahs, and Sikhs who wear turbans. At the same time, the law doesn’t affect all religions equally. While those of other religious minorities might not be able to conceal symbols of their faith, I can tuck a cross under my shirt.

Secularism isn’t necessarily only a political ethos. Although relatively independent from the goings-on of the government, McGill and other university institutions often start with a secular outlook when it comes to the pursuit of knowledge. In an academic context, classes often begin with the assumption that God does not exist and that Christianity is a sort of antique worldview. However, this view itself involves a value judgment, though it is often portrayed as a neutral starting point for academic studies. While the secular standpoint certainly has its uses, it can sometimes also crowd out other perspectives.

There is also an insistence on a teleological progression of knowledge within the humanities, where the secular society of today is portrayed as more in-the-know than that of our ancestors. While this is certainly true for some subjects, our academic advancements still fail to explain some of life's biggest questions. In Science as a Vocation, the German sociologist Max Weber argues that the social sciences fall short of answering the essential questions like, "Who are we?" and "What is this life?" Weber reasons that science can never answer certain fundamental questions of life, like what it means to live a good life, and what one should value.

Manuel Cárdenas, a PhD candidate at McGill, noted that the diminishing role of Christianity in Western society has led to a radically different study of literature.

Yet faith continues to be relevant to many students’ lives, functioning as a guide and source of hope for students during difficult times.

"There have been times when I've been really moved by the prayers of students on campus, who I guess feel the weight of the darkness of the secularism and the coldness that can come with an institution that values itself and treats itself so seriously as McGill," Cárdenas explained.

Amidst McGill's cutthroat environment, I've found that Christian groups create a community not based on CV-boosting, but rather on a shared commitment to worshiping God and spreading His love. It's refreshing to get together with a group of people to not only discuss matters beyond academics, but also to connect to God through worship—a necessary way for me to let go of the stress of day-to-day life and focus on praising God.

"Everyone who comes [to McGill] is deserving and really, really quite talented,” Cárdenas said. “But that kind of striving [...] absent the kind of community and assurance of self-worth that Christianity requires and promises, can be very fraying in a way.”

Powerful Conversations

I've found that most Christians have a quiet yet powerful presence at McGill. We’re in your French class trying not to get called on, and praying for you when you don’t know it. We’re singing worship music in the SSMU building after class, leaving events early for prayer meetings, and wanting others to know that we’re different from the caricatures that are often made of us.

I spend too much time trying to figure out what other people will think of me when they find out I'm Christian. I wonder what assumptions they will make after that; what boxes will they put me in? However, one important lesson I've learned recently is that, more often than not, people surprise us. The friends and peers with whom I've spoken about my faith have been deeply intrigued by my story and curious to hear more. I am often surprised by this, but it makes sense; people are itching to talk about questions such as the meaning of life and existence of God. When they do take an interest, I feel gratified to be able to share what God has done in my life, and warmed that they are willing to listen.

A diverse university environment allows us to challenge our assumptions about those with different views than our own. For Johow, some of the most meaningful experiences have been interactions between Christians and non-Christians.

"It is always so meaningful to invite people to step out of their regular daily routine and take time to share about what they believe, fear, hope, and desire," Johow said. "It is so refreshing to talk to people about purpose in life and [see] that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’"

These interactions can also take place in the classroom. Cárdenas himself has experienced these profound moments during his time as a lecturer.

"I've had conversations with students who are not themselves Christian, who, in encountering the boldness of Christianity in these literary texts and in hearing a certain kind of compassion and grace reflected to them by me as an instructor [...] have been moved," Cárdenas said.

One former student who wasn't Christian came up to Cárdenas after class and explained that he had been reading a lot of Christian devotional literature. He eventually ended up reading a modern Christian poet.

"He said, ‘You know, I think I spent Christmas with Jesus,'" Cárdenas said.

A living, breathing word

Studying literature as a Christian makes it all the more meaningful for me. The more I get to know Jesus through the Bible, the more I see His story in other texts. As writer Sally Lloyd-Jones said, "Every story whispers His name." But beyond the fact that Jesus' story is present across so many works of literature, according to the Christian canon, He Himself is the Word made flesh. The centrality of language to Christianity inherently connects my faith to my chosen area of study and reaffirms the undeniable power of language—after all, Proverbs 18:21 tells us that "the tongue has the power of life and death."

Or, as John 1:1 puts it, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Indeed, Genesis describes the creation of the world as the result of God speaking it into existence. This connection between God and language is undeniable, and for Cárdenas, God's creative power is what instills art with meaning.

"My appreciation for the creative power of God validates the arts for me as something that is intrinsically worthwhile," Cárdenas said.

Rebecca Mallett, U3 Education, who is specializing in Secondary English and is the evangelism coordinator at P2C, finds the connection between Christianity and literature has greatly impacted her course selection. She's also relied on God for help interpreting texts.

"There's a verse in Daniel that talks about how God gave insight into the minds of Daniel and his friends into understanding the literature of the people they were with," Mallet said. "I was like, wow, I need to understand Russian literature right now, and God helped me understand and gave me insight into this."

She recalled Psalm 38:9, which she read out to me: "All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you."

In my own poetry, I find I am always searching for this beauty, and it is in God that I find it. For a long time, I had been walking that fine line between worship and poetry, but now I can say that poetry is how I worship. Tucking scripture quietly and boldly into my poetry is something I see as the central project of my art.

The connection between literature and God can also go the other way. Since the Bible has so many literary elements, including sections filled with poetry and areas enhanced by historical understanding, examining it academically is not incompatible with examining it spiritually.

"I think more about conditions like social conditions in which text is being written," Cárdenas said. "If you read Paul's various claims, or statements on the role of women in the church, imagining that he's speaking [as if] coming from the clouds, then giving a statement that men should do this and women should do this—it sounds like he's trying to delimit the scope of women's activities.”

Yet learning more about the context in which Paul spoke changed Cárdenas’ understanding.

“If you read it in the context of Greco-Roman ideals for what the family should be, it's obvious he's trying to carve out additional space for women."

That's what God is

Being Christian has dramatically changed what I see as my project in life. Beyond studying literature because I see value in it—and I do see an immeasurable value in it—I think literature is a powerful way to share God's love with the world. Within a Christian worldview, although you can and should use your work to glorify God, at the end of the day, you are so much more than your profession.

"The objective of what I'm doing in the end is bringing glory to God," Ponce said. "Hopefully as a future doctor. I not only want to be in the profession because of the passion that I have for the care of people and the passion I have for medicine or for science, but also to display God's love through that.”

To him, displaying God's love means showing people that they are dearly loved.

"Most people don't know how much they're loved by God," Ponce said. "I think this changes everyone, when they realize there's a God who loves them unconditionally.”

When the fear of judgment gets in the way of sharing this love, it's time to put that fear aside. For me, art is charged with potential; it provides a way to move past this fear by acting as a gateway to meaningful conversations with others about God, a way to carve a fish in the sand.

As I walk to campus carrying a book filled with biblical allusions, a car passes by playing "Jesus Lord." For a moment the air is filled with possibility as God's name drifts up into the air.

Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor