Bible students are different now than they were in the 1990s when Peter Dula was a student at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). Students now, says Dula, Bible and religion department chair, want to “experiment” with what it means to be church and “dig deep into the meaning of Anabaptism, even if they don’t know it by that name.”
“There are more options out there for today’s students,” says Dula. “Rather than joining a traditional church structure, they sometimes choose to search for something even more Anabaptist.”
The emerging church movement and New Monasticism have created alternatives to traditional church that draw from and can inform an Anabaptist perspective, says Dula, a 1992 graduate.
“New Monasticism focuses on prayer, communal life and reaching out to the poor… Ideas that are rooted in the Christian tradition, but in a way Anabaptists can recognize as their own. It is an interesting time to teach and think about Anabaptism.”
Embracing the change
Instead of resisting alternatives to traditional worship, Dula and Carmen Schrock-Hurst, a 1981 EMU graduate and Bible and religion instructor, see an opportunity to embrace alternatives and use them to engage and inform students.
“Our goal is to equip students to engage in shaping the future of the church,” said Schrock-Hurst, who also serves as co-pastor at Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. “All these ideas are available to this generation and we can create space for them to explore and figure out what works in their faith journeys.”
EMU’s Bible and religion department tries to continually learn from students, says Dula. “Many of them are way out ahead of us as teachers.” We want to be a “meeting place,” he notes, where Mennonite and students from diverse backgrounds can share ideas on faith and God’s calling in their lives.
“Some of our best students enter EMU without a background in Anabaptism or the Mennonite church,” said Dula. “They find here, however, a space to own, appropriate and transform what they learn in our classrooms in ways that manage to be thoroughly Anabaptist.”
Ted Grimsrud, professor of Bible and religion added, “I find that sometimes the students who are not from Mennonite backgrounds add a kind of new-discovery freshness when they embrace the peace position. Other times, we get challenges to pacifist assumptions born out of different ways of thinking about the Bible and Christianity.”
More than a classroom
EMU’s Middle East cross-cultural semester provides an alternative classroom for many Bible and religion students with profound results. The experience, led by Linford Stutzman, professor of culture and mission and his wife, Janet Stutzman, showcases the history of the Bible while exploring current conflicts. Students are immersed in language and cultural studies while living in Palestine and Jerusalem.
After spending a semester in the Middle East, senior Jamie Hiner, from Culpeper, Va., observed, “I can connect to the stories [of the Bible] on a completely different level. I understand who Jesus was on a human level, and I have a connection to the land, people and cultures.”
In addition to the Middle East cross-cultural program, EMU is the only Mennonite Church USA higher-education institution offering a major in philosophy. Christian Early, associate professor of philosophy and theology, says that while Catholics and Protestants have a long academic tradition in philosophy, Anabaptists are important contributors “because our own history of having been marginalized, our understanding of concrete embodied community, and our commitment to peace and reconciliation.”
Senior Ben Bailey, from Simsbury, Conn., found his knowledge of the Bible to be “limited compared to my peers at EMU.” A double-major in biblical studies and peacebuilding and development, Bailey says his studies have provided him with a “comprehensive base knowledge to build upon.
“I continually feel the need to understand and question the Bible and theology on a deeper level.”
Hiner, a biblical studies major with a minor in theater, added, “I’ve learned so much from personal relationships with my professors. I love having real conversations with them outside the classroom.”
Bible and religion department faculty envision their department’s influence expanding across campus and in the community through dialogue with campus ministries and local churches. Interest in the department’s Ministry Inquiry Program is growing as opportunities to explore internships outside of “traditional” pastoring arise. The very definition of “pastor” and “church” is changing; students are interested in how they intersect with these concepts.
“Students have an advantage with Eastern Mennonite Seminary on campus, in addition to Virginia Mennonite Conference and numerous Mennonite churches nearby to integrate and connect with pastors, leaders and teachers,” Schrock-Hurst says.
Dula agrees, adding, “The goal is to make the discussion and debates that occur in our classrooms become the heart and soul of campus. This will encourage growth not only in the department and across campus, but in the broader church.”