Now that it’s officially August, the “back to school” conversations have begun. For many parents, however, it is not back to school for their kids, but “away” to school. Some parents are sending kids to college—perhaps for the first time.
My family is in exactly that position. My second child, John, heads to college in just a few weeks. My oldest, Emma, already left three years ago. And I know what parents are feeling. They are wondering how their child will survive the intellectual and spiritual challenges of university life.
Indeed, I can still vividly remember my own college experience as a believer on campus. In the fall of 1989, I began my freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Like many freshmen, I was excited for the next chapter in my life, eager to explore the new opportunities and experiences that college had to offer.
Of course, I knew there would be challenges. College life would not be easy, especially for a Christian. But I had grown up in a solid Christian home, was taught the Bible from a young age, and was a faithful member of my church youth group. So I figured I was ready.
The problem stemmed not from what I was taught but from what I wasn’t taught. I wasn’t prepared in the one area that would matter most in a university environment. I wasn’t prepared intellectually. And I would soon learn (the hard way) that intellectual preparation was what I needed more than anything.
My lack of preparation reached a head in the spring of my freshman year when I took a religion course titled Introduction to the New Testament. The professor was a young scholar who was bright, engaging, funny, and persuasive. It didn’t take long to see that he lectured with an eye toward evangelicals, even sharing how he was once an evangelical himself not long ago.
And then during his graduate studies, after deep engagement with the text, he realized he could no longer maintain his evangelical beliefs. The New Testament wasn’t inspired after all but was full of mistakes. It wasn’t reliable but was filled with made-up stories and fabrications. And its original form wasn’t even accessible to us but had been badly corrupted by scribes over years of transmission.
That professor’s name was Bart Ehrman.
Although I could not have known it at the time, I was taking a class with a scholar who would become one of Christianity’s loudest and most prolific critics. Ehrman, now the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at UNC, would go on to publish more than thirty books about the New Testament and early Christianity—five of which became New York Times best sellers.
Needless to say, such a religion class was a lot for a first-year student to handle. Rattled to the core, I spent that semester wondering whether my Christian beliefs had been a lie. And I was not the only one. I watched as many other Christian students struggled through that class, wondering how to mingle their faith with history (or whether that was even possible).
For myself, I decided to see if there were answers to my questions. Diving deeply into the class material and historical sources, I began to probe into the New Testament’s origins and reliability, and whether earlier Christians had ever addressed the issues Ehrman raised. I quickly discovered that Christians had addressed these issues—even from the earliest days of the Christian movement—and had done so with depth, precision, and intellectual rigor.
Simply learning that there were answers to Ehrman’s questions was not the end of my intellectual journey. I found myself genuinely fascinated with this new world I had discovered. In a rather ironic turn, my experience in this university religion class set me on a new intellectual trajectory, one that eventually led me to become a New Testament scholar myself, focused on these very same historical issues.
But for many college students, the story ends very differently. Confronted by an intellectual world for which they are not prepared, Christian college students are leaving behind their faith in worrying numbers.
And it is precisely for this reason that I have written my book: Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College (Crossway, 2021).
I have structured the book in the form of “letters” to my daughter Emma, who (in yet another ironic turn) is currently herself a student at UNC Chapel Hill. Each of these “letters” addresses a particular intellectual issue or challenge that I know she (and all college students) will eventually face.
Although the book is for college students (and I’ve written it at an introductory level for that purpose), it is really for anybody with intellectual questions about their faith.
My prayer is that it would helpful for students (and parents) as they head into this critical phase of their life. You can order it here!