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FIRST-PERSON: Dayna Curry, Heather Mercer & the future of Christianity

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–The Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer story is simply irresistible. Two young American women go to Afghanistan to meet human needs and share their Christian faith clandestinely. They are imprisoned by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime, which becomes our nation’s number one enemy after Sept. 11. After a harrowing two months locked up in a war zone, they are suddenly rescued by U.S. Special Forces. Of such stories are blockbuster movies made.

But who are these women? Why did they go to Afghanistan? What have they learned from their experiences? These are the kinds of questions that draw crowds to their speaking engagements across the country. Here are my reflections:

Curry and Mercer are both women who abandoned routine participation in American culture because of radical Christian conversion experiences that illuminated for them the emptiness of the American dream. Curry talked about growing up in a nominally Christian home, dabbling in worldly pleasures, but then finding Christ in college and gradually becoming committed to foreign mission work. Mercer grew up just blocks from my own home in the northern Virginia suburbs, converting at age 15 and becoming quite radically committed to the Christian life thereafter. Both ultimately found fulfillment only in leaving behind the comforts of American life and following Christ to the ends of the earth.

Mercer and Curry seem quite representative of what I call the “passion faith” of the current generation of evangelical students. Such faith is deeply emotional, heartfelt and intuitive. It marks a break with the stodgy religiosity that so often characterizes church life in our country. It is a faith full of zeal and commitment, ready to sacrifice, willing to pay any price in pursuit of obedience to Christ. It seems to be a reaction to the emptiness and absurdity of lukewarm Christianity.

This zealous commitment is also related, I think, to the suffering that so many in this age group have experienced at the hands of their self-seeking parents. Where Mom and Dad — and their generation — too often made a mess of their own and their children’s lives in search of the holy grail of personal happiness, their children want a cause worth living and dying for.

Having made this kind of break with culture and conventional Christianity, young people like Mercer and Curry are led on a journey of radical discipleship that then teaches its own extraordinary lessons. Mercer was particularly adept at describing the paradoxical joy found in abandoning everything for Jesus and suffering for his cause. A favorite passage for her was Matthew 16:24-26, in which Jesus calls any who would follow him to take up their cross. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

It has been the nearly universal witness of the Christian church that the richest experience of God is found not in safety but in peril, not in comfort but in suffering. Both Mercer and Curry described their imprisonment as the occasion for an indescribable sense of God’s presence, love and sovereignty. Mercer said, “I came to the end of myself” during that imprisonment, and at the end of herself she found God in his fullness.

The “passion faith” of young people like Mercer and Curry fills such a gaping hole in American Christianity that is hard not to describe it as a renewal movement initiated by the Spirit of God.

However, there is another gaping hole in church life that passion faith does not address so well. This other problem is that we are not a thinking people. We are cut off from the rich theological and ethical resources of our own tradition.

Passion faith helps us little at this point. I waited in vain, for example, during Curry and Mercer’s speaking engagement here at Union University Feb. 20 for substantive reflection on the issues raised by clandestine lawbreaking and the systematic deceit required to spread the Christian message in a country that forbids it. These are concerns that can be addressed, but only if they are thought about.

Our goal should be both the deeply passionate and richly thoughtful Christian faith characteristic of the best of Christian history.
Gushee is the Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy and senior fellow with the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership at Union University, Jackson, Tenn.

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  • David P. Gushee