Fancy grilling a Christian?
Last Tuesday I came across a small advertisement on a bike shed in James College, advertising an event in which I would be able to "Grill a Christian." I would be presented with a "panel of Christians" who would tell me what they "actually think" on things that matter to me. It made me think of a sort of sinister interrogation, in which a string of believers would be chained before me and submitted to my relentless questioning - an inquisition, if you will. Alternatively, I could just attend the event for the free food.
The Christian Union is arguably the biggest and most well-known religious organisation on the campus. Its members enthusiastically welcome Freshers during their first week of university life, handing out free goodies and inviting them to various events in the week. They hold regular 'Big Questions' meetings in Yourspace, the YUSU common room, in which speakers from local churches and organisations visit to discuss religious dilemmas including the relevance of God in science and university life, the relationship between Christianity and women, the nature of God and whether we can be good without God and His influence. On Tuesdays, each college division of the Christian Union meets for small events including discussions, Bible studies and games nights.
The Christian Union is renowned for its acts of generosity and goodwill around the campus. Most events, big and small, involve plenty of free food for anyone, religious, agnostic or atheist, who attends. Toasted sandwiches are a well-known delicacy at Christian Union events. In exchange for a short, sentence-long extract from the Bible, you will receive the toasted sandwich. What makes this goodwill all the more evident is the knowledge that the Christians themselves receive no funding from the student union. The ham, cheese, chocolate and sweets are paid with the pounds in the pockets of the Christian Union members.
As much as charity and general niceness are good virtues, the campus Christians seem willing to put themselves into the spotlight with a smile. Some students will readily admit that they do take advantage of this, visiting the events simply for the convenience of a free and ready dinner. Who would willingly sacrifice weekly a portion of their student loan to pay for toasted sandwiches for everyone else?
Being open to all religious faiths and none, occasionally Christian Union events can be sabotaged, by accident or by intention, by questions from audience members that are deliberately chosen to be uncomfortable. Christian Q&A sessions often feature queries on the instructions concerning slavery in the Bible, the attitude of the Church toward homosexuality, the prophecies on the apocalypse or whether God's chosen people are stronger than iron chariots. Some people ask how it is possible for some Christians to believe the world to have been created in six days, six thousand years ago, in contrast with the mainstream scientific understanding of the age and nature of the planet.
Reading the advertisement, it seemed to me that the Christian Union was once again setting itself up to be used and abused, whether by students who were ready to ask a difficult question on Christian practices or simply looking for an unearned toasted sandwich. But it was the James College Christians themselves, not others, who were offering their members up to be "grilled." I went along to the advertised event and put a question to the panel of Christians. Why do you put on these kinds of events e.g. being 'grilled'? I wrote. Doesn't it feel like you're putting yourselves in the line of fire? One panellist said:
We are putting ourselves in the line of fire, but why do we do it? It's ultimately what the Christian Union is all about: creating a space where people can come and have the safety and freedom to ask the questions about life and investigate Christianity.
Ultimately, the Christian Union is motivated by their belief and confidence in the good news and message of Christ. The Union wishes to spread His good news and enable students to learn more about Him and His story. The Christian Union may expose itself and its members to flak with its open, public discussions and its occasional dogmatism, but what could be more commitment to free discussion than the provision of opportunities to learn, question ideas and develop oneself?
Though I do not align myself with the religious beliefs of the Christian Union, I am convinced that its members are some of the kindest students on the campus. Over biscuits and lemonade with the Christians of James College I had some of the most pleasant and thoughtful conversations I think I have had at university. Few others are so willing to sit down and speak to strangers with such keenness to learn about you and the inability to lose a smile on their faces. At no point did I ever feel that my lack of faith made me unwelcome.
Are the Christian Union members aware that many people turn up just for the sandwiches? Of course they are. Do they mind? No. The Christian Union wishes to express their goodwill to everyone. People who turn up experience their good intentions, whether they turn up to learn about God or learn about sandwiches. Cleaning Constantine College's kitchens free of charge last year was an expression of the Christian Union's love for the residents.
Across many universities beside York, from St. Andrews to Chester, university Christian Unions are known for their regular acts of goodwill and their members' enthusiasm. 'Grilling a Christian' is not the first time that the University of York's Christian Union has hosted an atypical event on campus and it won't be the last.
This article was originally written for and published by The Yorker on the 2nd February 2016. You can read it here.