LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Peter Perl’s apprehension grew the minute he saw the roommate list for his trip to the Middle East.
For three weeks, the long-time newspaper journalist would be rooming with a Southern Baptist seminary student -– and he was uneasy.
“What will it be like to live for three weeks with someone who might try to save my soul?” Perl, who works at The Washington Post, mused silently.
“Will the student believe that people like me who do not trust in Christ alone for salvation will spend the afterlife in the flames of hell? Will he believe that the Bible is literally the Word of God?”
Perl had numerous questions and concerns about his new temporary roommate. For 23 nights he bunked with Matthew Cates, a master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and later admitted he had learned — through the uncompromising but gracious witness of Cates — one thing about Southern Baptists he had least suspected: Their desire to spread the grace of God in Christ is born out of a genuine love for people.
Perl and Cates were fellow travelers on an annual summer trip called the Middle East Travel Seminar (METS), a pilgrimage to notable Middle Eastern sites. The group was an eclectic blend of 20 spiritual sojourners including conservative and liberal Protestant seminary students and practitioners of the Jewish faith.
Perl wrote of his experience and detailed a budding relationship with Cates that flowered during the trip in a lengthy first-person article that ran in the Aug. 21 edition of the Washington Post under the headline “With God as their Witness.”
Cates, a Burlington, N.C., native, said he was pleased with the way Perl represented him in the article. Though Perl, a self-professed pluralist, considers the truth claims of Christianity to be too narrow and restrictive, he respected Cates’ unyielding, yet gracious, view that Scripture is the Christian’s infallible, sole fountain of knowledge and that faith in Jesus Christ is the only path to heaven.
“Peter was very gracious to me in the article,” said Cates.
Throughout the article, Perl describes his various discussions with Cates regarding the faith. He also shows Cates interacting as a Christian with other METS members. Overall, Perl depicts Cates as unwilling to bend on the truth claims of Christ, but gracious in his conversations with his fellow travelers.
Individual group members volunteered to lead a devotional in the evening. Cates read passages from Romans 3 and 5. Perl describes how the devotional upset several members of the group, including a seminary student who told Cates that the exclusivity of Paul’s message, “did not give everyone a place to stand.”
Cates said his aim was to prayerfully and humbly present the Gospel — and all of its claims to exclusivity — without compromise. The aversion some group members displayed toward Paul’s message led Cates to write in his METS reflection paper, a requirement for each participant, “I hope that they are wrestling with you, God, and not just me.”
Members of the group, Cates said, mirrored the postmodern culture in that they found the exclusive claims of the Gospel to be the most scandalous aspect of Christianity. Paul’s assertion of human depravity did not exactly resonate with the group either, he said.
“People have such negative thoughts about any kind of system that is not defined by their own wills,” Cates said. “They see anything not defined by themselves as restrictive. But I tried to get the point across that God is who we are accountable to and not just some earth-bound authority.
One lesson Cates said both he and Perl seemed to learn during their time together was the reality of stereotype. Religions are often stereotyped in the mainstream media, and their most radical elements often gain the most attention, Cates said.
Cates said Perl exhibited a desire to represent evangelical Christianity accurately, an approach Cates said he wants to take in interacting with and articulating the grace of God with those of other faiths.
“My delight in the trip was being able to interact with people who hold positions that I don’t hear on a regular basis,” he said.
“It is deceiving to think that [evangelical Christianity] is a popular view…. It is very strange to some people and there are stereotypes that go with it. Sometimes the stereotypes override what you really want to emphasize and we have to move beyond the stereotypes and talk honestly with each other.
“I think Peter realized that religion is often stereotyped and I think that is why he wanted to write the story. He did want to wrestle honestly with some of the issues having to do with evangelicalism.”
The trip, Cates said, reminded him that Christians must be honest about the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture.
“A lot of what I saw on the trip was just terminology and the casings of Christianity without Christ Himself,” he said. “But if I am going to be a Christian, He must be the very center of my conversation, of my worship, of my prayers. To take that out, you are left with something that is not Christian.
“The importance of wrestling with Scripture itself was also brought home to me. With many people on the trip there was some talk about Scripture but it quickly came down to their own ideas and opinions about how God is and must be…. Ultimately, their own source of authority is themselves.”
Perl and others asked Cates some difficult questions regarding Christianity, and Cates said believers must welcome such questions because a truly biblical faith can withstand the closest scrutiny. His advice for interacting with a pluralistic postmodern culture that denies the existence of absolute truth? Show them you are a Christian by your love.
“Let them see that your heart really is to love each other,” he said. “I asked myself that question a lot, ‘Do I genuinely love the people on this trip and am I expressing that to them? Is it true that they will know I’m a Christian by my love?’ They must see that we love them.”
Perl’s article may be viewed in its entirety at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/16/AR2005081601226_pf.html.