Christian + University = ? (Daniel 1)

I want to tell you a story–one that happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far away. In fact, so long ago, and in such a different world, that I’m afraid it will probably be very difficult for you to identify. You’ll really have to exercise your imagination.

The year, you see, was 605 BC. Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon. He was having trouble with the feisty little kingdom of Judah, so he did what was customary in those days: transported all their leaders—royal family and civil servants, the business people, and the artists—into exile in Babylon, leaving behind only those the Bible calls “the poorest of the land”. The basic idea was obvious: if you cut the head cut off, before long the chicken will stop running around.

You see what I mean? It all seems a long time ago, about people totally different from ourselves, with weird names (have you ever met a Nebuchadnezzar?), occupied with issues that don’t concern us, acting in ways that seem bizarre. Who needs this stuff except ancient historians, who I suppose to get a kick out of it? And preachers, of course. But indulge me a little longer . . .

One of these exiles was a young man called Daniel. I imagine that for Daniel, as for the others, Babylon was quite an eye-opener. As they were led captive through the streets, they had never seen a city that big, with palaces and temples and libraries and hanging gardens (of course) and advanced technology (well, more advanced than Jerusalem anyway). In a way, it was frightening, but at the same time its new ideas and alternative lifestyles were also strangely intriguing and seductive. The Judeans felt like very small country mice in the big, exciting city.

But if exiles like Daniel were nervous of Babylon, the Babylonians just loved Daniel and had a wonderful plan for his life. They regarded him and his kind as diamonds in the rough and their plan was to shape him into a diamond to their liking. How would they do that? Four steps.

Step Number One was already accomplished: separate him from his home environment.

Step Number Two: He was given a new name (7) Now, many people adopt a new name to fit in with a new culture: maybe you’ve done that yourself, or your parents did it for you, when you came to Canada. But these names were imposed and enforced. It wasn’t a matter of choice. It was to do with the Babylonians’ policy of cultural assimilation: shaping the diamond.

Daniel might well have objected: after all, he was losing a name with the name of his God in it (Daniel means God is my judge), and adopting a name with a reference to a pagan god in it (probably Bel, or Baal, protect the king). Surprisingly, perhaps, Daniel didn’t think this was worth making a fuss about. But then, you can’t protest about everything, or people stop listening, so you have to save your silver bullets. Daniel did.

Step Number Three to shape this rough diamond was to put Daniel and other promising Judean youth into a very special environment, and subject them to a three-year process known as . . . higher education. (You doubt me? It’s right there in black and white in verse 5: “They were to be educated for three years.”)

The plan was that, by the end of the three years, they would have shed the distinctives of their background, like a butterfly coming out of its chrysalis, and they would emerge as good solid Babylonian citizens: sophisticated, broadminded, articulate, and politically correct. In particular, the authorities expected that these Judeans would shed their old-fashioned prejudices about religion.

They didn’t imagine that would be difficult. Part of the shaping was informal. Eavesdrop with me on a casual conversation in a residence at the University of Babylon in 605 BC, between two first year students, one a Babylonian native and the other a Judean import:

“No, actually in our religion we worship just one God.”

“That must get really boring. We have, oh, about 2,500, I heard. It’s really fun. There’s a lot of freedom to choose.”

“But in our religion that’s called idolatry and it’s a very bad thing.”

“Wow, but that’s really narrow-minded. Why would anyone believe anything like that?”

“Well, um, our people have believed that for a long time. I’m not quite sure how it began. I guess we think it’s, well, true. Like.”

“True? True for you maybe. Not for me, thanks anyway. By the way, we’re going to the temple tonight. Do you wanna try it out?”

“Um, is it your worship service?”

“Yes, so we’re going to check out the new temple prostitutes. What do you think?”

“Well, actually, in our religion we believe sex should be kept for marriage.”

“Wow! That’s weird. Unhealthy. My psychology prof says that sex is just a physical need, like eating. When you’re hungry, you go for pizza. So, well, you know. We’re going to the temple.” 

“Sorry, I think I have to stay in and, um, catch up on my Bible reading.”

“That sounds . . . exciting. See you later then.”

As for the exiles’ studies, partly this was a CSL program. Not C.S.Lewis (though that might have been helpful) but Chaldean as a Second Language (v.4 “they were to be taught . . . the language of the Chaldeans”). Then there was the literature of the Chaldeans. From what I learn in the commentaries, the course catalogue might have described it this way:

Chaldean Literature 100: Introduction to historic Chaldean literature: includes traditional magic, incantations, prayers and hymns to the gods, sorcery, charms and astrology, myths and legends.

Again, you hold your breath, waiting for Daniel to fire a silver bullet. But it never comes.  He might have protested: “Those things are against my religion, and I don’t want to read that kind of book.” He might have appealed to the Human Rights Commission—except, of course, that he didn’t exactly have any rights. 

Now Daniel didn’t have access to the resources Christian students have now. Today, I doubt there is a single academic discipline where there isn’t at least one book by a Christian academic in that field (OK, maybe not underwater basket-weaving). But in other disciplines, there are Christian profs, grad students, conferences, websites and, in many cases, professional journals.

Daniel didn’t have those advantages. Yet he did well. In fact, by the end of the program, he and his buddies had won every prize in the school: v.20

In every matter of wisdom concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (v.20)

It’s not just that Daniel was smart. The deeper explanation is in v.17:

God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom.

God gave. Yes, I am sure Daniel worked hard. I am sure he sweated over some of those things his teachers required him to read that challenged his faith. I’m sure he pulled some all-nighters and probably drank a lot of black coffee. But through it all, the writer underlines, God was there: God gave knowledge, God gave skill: skill to be discerning, to know which aspects of this stuff were wise and insightful and helpful, and to know which parts of it needed to be exposed and rejected, to see what was compatible with God’s truth and what was not. The Babylonians were not the only ones interested in shaping this rough diamond.

Not every believing student does as well as Daniel. I don’t mean academically, though that’s true too! “This undergrad’s final marks are ten times better than any of her professors could manage.” I don’t think so. Brian Walsh, the Christian Reformed chaplain on this campus, puts it in terms of an equation: Christian student + university = ?.

  • For some, Christian student + university = Christian plus university. The faith side of life and the academic side of life stay in watertight compartments. In class, students just repeat everything they think the profs want to hear. Out of class, they spend all their time with those who believe the same things they do, as though Christ was only Lord of some bits of life.  That’s not Daniel’s way.
  • For some, says Brian, Christian student + university = nonChristian student. The pressures of the culture become too much. They think their profs speak absolute truth with absolute authority (which isn’t helped, of course, by the fact that some profs probably think they do), instead of realizing that everybody speaks from a position of faith, whether it’s the faith of the atheist, the scientist, the Marxist, or the postmodern.
  • But for others, and Daniel is one of these, Christian + university = Christian university student. They learn to be discerning, to discriminate between truth and untruth, to understand the faith behind the profs’ words, to see how “the mind of Christ” can be brought to bear on their discipline, and to speak God’s truth as they perceive it, clearly and calmly, in class and in essays. This is the hardest of the three, the way of Daniel.

Step Number Four: To get Daniel to change his diet. But here Daniel drew the line: he would not eat the king’s food. This is the issue he chose for his silver bullet. The funny thing is, although it’s a major issue for Daniel—it could have cost him his head—scholars to this day don’t really know why he took a stand when he did. One commentary lists seven different suggestions that have been made over the years.  But, frankly, it doesn’t really matter. Daniel’s judgement was that it was defiling for him to eat the king’s food.

In any setting, however much as a Christian you appreciate secular culture and secular learning—as Daniel did—there will come points at which you have to say no:

  • It may be a movie you won’t go and see.
  • It may be something you don’t feel you should do with your sabbath.
  • Maybe a point of view your prof argues very persuasively, and you know you can’t go along with it.
  • Maybe you come across a minority that’s being given a hard time by the university, and you know you’re the one to do something about it.
  • It may simply be that you know that God’s vision for your life is more than just being a “great mind for a great future”[1]—what a terrible fate for a human being!—and that your vision of the world is fundamentally out of step with the university’s vision.

But notice how Daniel says no. He goes to the palace master—the dean of students, I guess, and then the guard—the residence don, I suppose—and asks, in a reasonable way to be excused. He doesn’t rant and rave and threaten them with the judgement of God and hell. Nor is he cringing and whining about his rights. Daniel is courteous and reasonable, and makes him an offer it’s hard to refuse (12-13). He shoots his silver bullet very graciously. It’s rather the equivalent of going to the prof and saying:

“I have noticed that a lot of the authors you cite are strongly anti-Christian. Do you think it would be possible sometime for me to give a presentation of an alternative viewpoint?”

“Thanks a lot for the invitation. I don’t actually do drugs, but I’d love to go for pizza with you some time.”

And God honours his courage:

So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams. (16-17)

Daniel demonstrates that God’s way works best, not just for religious folk but for anyone who will try it.

One last thing that’s implied more than spelled out here is this: Daniel needed fellowship!  If Daniel had only immersed himself in Babylonian language and literature, he probably wouldn’t have been in our Bibles as an example to follow—though he might have been an example of something else!

Instead, Daniel keeps strong links with his Hebrew community, and that helps him maintain in his faith. Verse 6 is the first mention of his believing classmates, his Bible study group of four; they also come in verse 11; then again in 17 and 19. Obviously, they stuck together through these three years. (In chapter two, Daniel asks them to pray for him, so there is clearly a spiritual component to their friendship.) In fact, scholars differ as to whether this is the first historical mention of Inter-Varsity Hebrew Fellowship or of Campus Crusade for Moses.[2] But it is clearly one or the other.

You too will not thrive as a Christian student unless you link arms with other Christians. It may be in IVCF or CCC or GCF. But it’s good also to link with a local church, maybe this one, where you are reminded that there’s life outside the hothouse of university, where you can sense the breadth and depth and resilience of God’s family. Church too is a place where you can come to dine at the king’s table—not King Nebuchadnezzar’s table, which only saps your spiritual strength, but King Jesus’ table, where you find forgiveness and energy and vision for your journey.

Exiles away from home? Christians are never fully at home in this world as it is. Diamonds in the rough? Maybe. But it is still your choice as to who you allow to do the shaping.

    Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto: Student Welcome Sunday,                                                                                 September 18, 1999                                                      

[1] At the time, this motto was on banners all around the University of Toronto.

[2] Power to Change used to be called Campus Crusade for Christ.