The author expresses her story through dance. (Photo: Saung Thuya)
In my final semester of undergrad at a secular, liberal arts institution, I undertook a mentored choreography-and-autoethnography project to complete the thesis requirement for my major. My research interests combined cultural and linguistic anthropology, dance, and religious studies, and I was particularly interested in using dance as a medium to convey and interpret personal narratives. I also believe that narratives from the Bible offer frameworks for interpreting my own lived experience as well as material to motivate choreography. I chose not to ignore my curiosity about the Bible with respect to this project, and I layered Scripture into my choreography and verbal storytelling.
No one had a problem with this until I brought up the book of Revelation. As I examined various biblical texts around the theme of exile and return, I noticed how the entire biblical story is framed as a narrative of exile and return, since it opens with humanity in a garden from which they are expelled and closes with the restoration of a garden in the midst of city where humanity dwells in the presence of God. As I told a story about my grandfather emigrating from India, feeling out of place everywhere, and searching for the right combination of here and there to feel like home, it felt important to layer in how the biblical narrative frames the return from exile as restoration of something lost by the complete renewal of all things, all through the life-giving power of Jesus. In my mind, the only authentic way for me to talk about how the tension of exile comes to its resolution was to refer to my hope in God.
But the fact is, authenticity can be tough sometimes, especially when you are just getting to know people in a new context.
In many academic spaces, Christianity may be mocked or misunderstood, and this means there are stumbling blocks to living faith authentically and visibly. But if my experience of relationship with God undercuts those misconceptions, I want to let that version of Christianity show in interactions with others. In fact, if faith fundamentally shapes who I am and what I care about, it will naturally manifest as part of my work and my relationships. But sharing my faith doesn’t mean tallying up converts or imposing my conclusions on others while their worldview starts from different assumptions than mine. It does mean letting God’s love for me and my love for others motivate my everyday actions and attitudes.
When I started grad school in fall of 2019, I spoke with Dr. Stephanie Holmer about her experiences living openly as a Christian as a student, and she shared about one experience where she wished things had gone a bit differently:
SH: When I was a first year grad student, I had to go in on the weekend to help with an experiment in the lab I was rotating in. There were just a couple people there, and I was wearing a church t-shirt. They started asking me more questions about my church and I started feeling really defensive, so I was probably unnecessarily defensive. In my undergrad experience I felt like a lot of professors and people I knew in the sciences weren't open to Christianity.
Stephanie’s experience is a great example of the vulnerability we can feel when we’re deciding how honest to be about our faith. I felt this sense of exposure when I had a discussion with my thesis advisor about integrating my faith into my choreography. While she didn’t have a problem with my use of biblical texts to generate movement and choreographic structures or even with my quoting biblical texts out loud as part of the performance, she pulled up short when I explained how I viewed the image of the garden-city in Revelation as an invitation for anyone to participate in worshiping God in the restored creation. She seemed concerned that I might be judging others through my faith and using art to impose my beliefs rather than extend an invitation — a misconception we needed to clear up together. Living my faith authentically and incorporating it into my academic work was institutionally acceptable as long as it was my interpretive lens and I wasn’t “imposing” my religion on anyone else.
Living an authentic faith within the context of friendship offers its own unique challenges. When Stephanie started her PhD program in cell biology, she quickly befriended a fellow student named Theresa. An invitation to an Easter service initiated their dialogue about faith, and what followed was a long, complex, relational friendship that included Theresa’s own exploration of Christianity.
As Stephanie and Theresa grew as friends and study partners, Stephanie’s faith became a natural part of conversation since her understanding of God was part of her motivation for studying cell biology.
In the fall of our second year we started studying for our prelims together, and we rotated going over to each other's houses, making a fast dinner, and studying for hours together. We got to know each other really well that year.
The textbook we read to prep for our exam starts out with origins and potential demise of Earth and the sun, and energy and how that works in cells, and the very foundations of cell biology. That actually led to conversations about faith. Some of the things that feel pretty scary about where our climate is right now or even just the fact that someday our sun is supposed to burn out — I felt like I could share that I had some level of confidence in this not outside of God's provision or God's knowledge, and that gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance about the ultimate destiny of everything that exists.
By the time Theresa later decided to follow Jesus, she and Stephanie were great friends. Their relationship was mutually giving as they supported each other in their studies, Stephanie answered some of Theresa’s questions about faith, and Theresa’s testimony became an encouragement to Stephanie in her own growing faith.
Experiences like these — of questioning and articulating elements of faith can prove to be very strengthening in our own spiritual beliefs. As I look back on my conversation with my advisor, I realize that I needed to fill in a big element of the picture for her. What I don’t think my advisor realized when we had this conversation is that I knew who would be in my audience. I performed my thesis in a small blackbox theater, and the seats filled with familiar faces from the past four years and more: my sister and grandparents; my Torah-study partner; staff, volunteers and students from my InterVarsity chapter; and classmates I’d gotten to know through shared coursework, study abroad, and weekly contra dance practice. When I wrote the script for my performance, these were the faces I imagined addressing, recalling past conversations about life, school, and spirituality. The relationships I had with my audience members allowed me to anticipate the details they would notice and the questions they would ask as they left that blackbox theater — and they noticed and inquired about the ideas I’d drawn from Scripture.
As Stephanie’s friendship with Theresa shows, evangelism isn’t really about “conversion” — it’s about nurturing deep personal relationships and allowing faith to be a natural part of that. Stephanie shared her faith experience according to Theresa’s level of openness and curiosity at various points, but all in the name of authentic friendship. She didn’t put herself on center-stage but recognized her own role in Theresa coming to faith as being intertwined with Theresa’s whole network of relationships. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7:
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (NRSV)
Part of following Jesus is living my faith authentically where my friends can see it. I’ve “planted” ideas about how God is active in my life, and I’ve “watered” with thoughtful responses to my friends’ curiosity about faith. But it’s the spirit of God who activates the interaction of seeds, soil, sunlight and water to make a plant sprout, and it’s the spirit of God who is responsible for “giving the growth” in a person’s mind and heart that draws them to God.
Stephanie’s story reminds me that sharing my faith is an integrated part of participating in community with my colleagues. A friendship where I’ll have an opportunity to share my faith is one where I’ve exercised kindness for the sake of the person I see working and studying beside me. It’s a friendship where I will pour love into another person and receive refreshment for my spirit. We’re not looking for people to convert, we’re simply living out the faith God has given us and letting it show as an integrated part of our lives, partnering with God who is revealed through loving, life-giving acts.
One of the dancers who performed in my thesis, Maya, was not a Christian at the time, but she had mentioned being curious about the Bible. From the beginning, this was a sign to me that God was at work drawing Maya to explore Christian faith. For my part, I explained to Maya and the other performers what biblical texts I was working with, how they influenced the choreography, and how God wove into the personal story I was telling and the interpretation I wanted to convey through the dances.
I also took care to embody kindness, gentleness, and patience as a director. One day Maya called me because she was running late to rehearsal, and I could tell she was in the middle of handling a stressful situation, so I told her not to worry about rehearsal and that I would be praying for her. A year and a half later, Maya told me she’d become a Christian and reminded me of that day and told me how much those words had meant to her. But it wasn’t just me; Maya’s journey to faith began before I met her and continued after my thesis performance as she read the Bible on her own and found another group of friends to study and pray with. The confluence of factors that led Maya to a relationship with God, bringing together her life experience with the faith-filled activities of myself and her other friends, demonstrates that God is the one orchestrating transformation through community.
One reason I understand my relationship with God to be a good thing — not oppressive or limiting as some people assume — is that God invites and encourages me to engage in honest, even vulnerable friendships as I did with Maya, being open about the spiritual motivation for my project and letting my care for her take precedence over work and deadlines. But in these relationships it’s not my job to convert someone to my faith; rather, the Holy Spirit works to cultivate that person’s first-hand relationship with God. As a friend from my InterVaristy chapter at Grinnell once said, being witnesses to Jesus means seeing the work God is doing in the lives of our friends, not just talking about what God has done in our own lives.
Living my faith authentically as a student means leaving God in the story. It means treating the Bible as a valid field for inquiry even in a secular institution. It means inviting my friends of any or no faith background to look at Scripture and asking with genuine curiosity, “What do you think of this?” Inviting peers to examine Scripture with me — because I’m curious about it and love it and want to share things I love with people I care about and respect — has deepened my learning about the Bible, been part of at least one person’s journey to a relationship with Jesus, and planted or watered seeds in other places. The important choice that I have made is not to treat all my work and relationships as a results-based quest for Christian converts but rather to faithfully ask the questions that my relationship with God makes me curious about and invest with love in the people I encounter along the way.