12.24.2022: How Would You Prove That God Performed a Miracle?

Josh Brown directs the program in neuroscience at Indiana University Bloomington. He has published dozens of articles on topics like the neural basis of decision making in the brain. He has wire-rimmed glasses and a calm, methodical way of speaking. And after almost two decades of keeping relatively quiet, he is now speaking openly about his most surprising research finding: He believes that God miraculously healed him of a brain tumor.

Christmas is a time when miracles happen, according to the Hallmark cards and cartoon specials. But Dr. Brown and his wife, Candy Gunther Brown, who did her doctorate in religious studies at Harvard and is also a professor at Indiana, believe that God does intervene to cause miraculous healing, all the time. Partly to understand the healing that shocked their family, they have traveled as far afield as Brazil and Mozambique to collect documentation purporting to link Christian prayers and revivals to sudden, inexplicable medical recoveries. But is it possible to prove that a miracle happened? Is it dangerous to even try?

Read more here.

Image credit: Zak Tebbal

12.20.2022: Parable of the Sower

The only decor in the little, white-walled church is a black cross and a text mural in large, black, sans serif letters: “Jesus Loves You Beyond Belief.”

The renovation was barely finished in time for the first official Sunday service. Blue painter’s tape still lines open floor ducts, and the tang of newly refinished floors pricks the nose.

Pastor Brian Pell, 30, looks relieved. He’s been working to plant this new congregation for over a year and today is “the launch,” in church-planting lingo. Outside on this mild September morning, on a slightly overgrown dead-end street near downtown Carrboro, churchgoers file past a card table stacked with donuts—not a flood of people, but not a trickle either. By the time the worship band picks up their guitars, about 80 people have turned up.

The scripture for this Sunday is from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, displayed on television monitors flanking the stage. It’s a passage about how harsh rules on food, drink, and worship are not the point of the gospel. This suits Carrboro, a kombucha-drinking, Pride flag-festooned town of about 21,000 next to Chapel Hill. When a young woman stands to read the day’s text and starts talking about wives submitting to husbands, people trade confused glances. When she gets to “slaves, obey your human masters in everything,” she realizes her mistake: “Wait a minute, I’m reading Colossians 3! Can we just start the service over?”

The congregation bursts into friendly laughter. This is Vintage Church Chapel Hill/Carrboro’s first service, and the goof breaks the tension—a little wink from the Holy Spirit. The slip is also telling. While Christians might prefer to lead with the agreeable parts of the gospel, sooner or later they run into the awkward fact that Jesus and his disciples were not, ultimately, warm and fuzzy or an easy fit in the 21st century.

Pell knows this as well as anyone. He’d planned to preach straight through Colossians, and would have to confront Colossians 3 the very next week.

Carrboro may seem like an odd place to start an evangelical church, with its rainbow crosswalks, informational lectures on hemp at the local grocery co-op, the spoken-word poetry, “anti-oppression talks,” and craft tables at its monthly “Really, Really Free Market.”

But perhaps all this makes Carrboro an ideal mission field for Christians. In our multicultural, secular age, Pell may convince nonbelievers that the best answer to their postmodern problems is a 2,000-year-old faith.

Read more here.

Image credit: Maddy Gray

12.02.2022: If It Was Good Enough for Socrates, It’s Good Enough for Sophomores

This is the season for final exams, but maybe we should drop the pencils, paper and keyboards and start talking instead.

The thought is scary at first. If Chidera Onyeoziri had known that her introductory sociology course required oral exams, “I’m not sure I would have taken the class,” she told me. She was a sophomore at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.; she had never taken an oral exam before.

“I remember putting in a lot of work, spending a lot more time on the course than I otherwise would have,” she said. During the first exam of the semester, she coped with her nerves by getting out of her chair and pacing. Her professor, normally so friendly, stared impassively and interrupted her with questions.

Looking back on the class after a few years, “I can definitely say that’s the course that I remember the most of, and that may be a function of the oral exams,” said Ms. Onyeoziri, today a student at Harvard Law School. Now that she’s planning to be a lawyer, she added, “public speaking is something I really can’t do without, so the oral exams were probably, in the long run, more helpful to me than written exams.”

As finals loom for most college students across America, it’s worth revisiting oral exams. The phrase brings to mind stone-faced interrogation intended to expose a trembling student’s “skull full of mush,” in the words of Professor Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase.” But if done right, oral exams can be more humane than written assessments. They are a useful tool in grappling with many problems in higher education: the difficulties of teaching critical thinking; students’ struggles with anxiety; everyone’s Covid-era rustiness at screen-free interaction — even the problem of student self-censorship in class discussion.

Read more here.

Image credit: Matt Chase

05.05.2022: This Is Not Your Grandfather’s MBA

If you want to be a leader confident in your deepest values and your role in the universe, go to business school. At least, that’s what business schools say. In recent years, they have branded themselves as places where students learn to stay “true to your mission” and undertake a “truly life-changing experience” that values “health, happiness, and purpose” as well as “authenticity and renewed passion.”

Marketing teams across higher education are fond of quasi-spiritual tag lines, so it might be unfair to pick on business schools. But in the M.B.A. world, the latest, breathless versions of these slogans signal more than the generic American vocation to make money and live your best life now. What is remarkable is this: After decades of emphasis on financial markets and shareholder returns, business schools are trying to take on deeper philosophical problems — including, maybe, tentative questions about the means and ends of capitalism itself.

Read more here.

Image credit: Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

04.28.2022: The Soul Truth


Sitting through a 40-minute lecture is not, generally, a popular pastime in our distracted culture. But on a typical Sunday at The Summit Church in Raleigh, the room goes from worship-band jamming and raucous applause to rapt silence as J.D. Greear, 48, walks onstage.

His salt-and-pepper crew cut, well-groomed stubble, black polo shirt, black zip-up jacket and khakis are the uniform of a pastor who is cool, but not too cool—who wants to bridge the formidable Boomer—Gen Z chasm.

All around the sprawling auditorium, people are flipping through their Bibles and getting ready to take notes. Occasionally a glowing screen lights up the dim room, but it’s just someone consulting a Bible app.

“Christian love—1 Corinthians 13—is countercultural, and it’s often straight-up confrontational,” Greear says.

Greear’s sermon is about confronting the self-centered motives that often lie behind pious behavior: “Apart from love, Paul says, every other religious act is empty, it is hollow, it is displeasing to God and it’s just annoying to other people … You tracking with this? Because, see, this is what the Corinthians were: They were religiously impressive on the outside, but full of selfish immaturity on the inside.”

He glances occasionally at the small black binder of notes in his left hand, his eyes otherwise locked on the cameraman back near the tech booth. Most people in the congregation are watching Greear on one of the room’s giant screens, as are congregants at Summit’s 10 other campuses around the Triangle.

Greear gestures with the amped-up energy of a professional who knows how to calibrate for the camera without seeming hammy in real life. He never admonishes the congregation for too long without a dimpled smile and some comic interlude of repentance for his own idolatries, whether it’s pride, people-pleasing, or his excessive love for Nicolas Cage movies.

The man can preach. It’s not hard to understand why so many congregants cite Greear’s sermons as a major reason they are here—over 8,600 on an average weekend (another 7,000 watch online). Summit’s Easter service at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater drew almost 16,000.

Still, the Triangle is a hard place to win souls for Jesus. It’s full of transient college students, well-educated skeptics, and immigrants from other religious backgrounds. Like everywhere else in the Western world, the Triangle has lots of exhausted and apathetic people who would prefer to sit alone on the couch on Sunday morning. Yet Summit is preposterously determined—more determined than most churches—to win people to Christ.

What’s even more unusual, in our polarized times, is this: Greear is not doubling down on us-versus-them, but trying to build bridges—both at Summit and during his recent term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Greear’s presidency was a testy three years spent trying to get the country’s 14 million Southern Baptists to wrestle more openly with racism and churches’ widespread failure to listen to victims of sexual assault.

Christian love, he said in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, “sometimes presses down to expose what you are hiding … love does not naively close its eyes when difficult questions are in order.”

Greear’s tightrope walk may be attempting the impossible: to pull back from the culture war without yielding to secular values, and to serve and love non-Christians—while still begging them to see that they are damned without Jesus.

Read more here.

Image credit: Maddy Gray