God And The City
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Saturday night in midtown Manhattan, and 25 college students are packed into the living room of a small apartment. The festivities are about to get underway, and in this demographic, in this town, that typically means mind-altering substances, which segue to deafening music, which ultimately leads to nudity.
That's not happening here. There isn't a bong in sight, or a drop of liquor. Just 7Up and Edy's ice cream. And when the student in charge of this shindig says it's time for the evening to begin, he doesn't bust out a cooler of Smirnoff Ice. He asks everyone to bow their heads and pray.
"Dear Lord God, we thank You so much for this evening. God, I just say that we who believe in You, we trust You, Lord; we trust that You are working for good. I ask that You be glorified with the rest of us here. In Jesus's name, I pray."
The main event, it turns out, is a thoroughly earnest, often witty and occasionally mind-pretzeling debate over John Calvin, the 16th-century French Protestant. A young man named Anthony Randazza will argue in favor of Calvin's concept of predestination and "irresistible grace," and his friend David Lapp will argue against. A moderator -- no kidding, there's a moderator -- will keep each side to a five-minute opening statement, then a half-hour of mutual interrogation, followed by questions from the audience.
If there is such a thing as the opposite of a drug-crazed rave, this is what it looks like.
You may wonder who moves to Manhattan as an undergraduate and spends Saturday night parsing the words of a theologian. Here's a guess: no one except the students of the King's College, an evangelical college located in the Empire State Building.
That's right, there's an evangelical college in the Empire State Building -- 45,000 square feet of space on three floors, with classrooms, a student rec center, administrative offices, the works.
The symbolism of the address did not escape the overseers of the King's, who moved the institution here from a village in Westchester County, N.Y., in 1999, after financial woes closed the school in the mid-'90s. (An evangelical organization, the Campus Crusade for Christ, helped revive it.) Moving to the iconic heart of the bluest city in the country was precisely the point.
"What the King's College is doing is a beautiful illustration of what Christ did," says Lapp. "He came into the muck and mire of this world, and He lived among men, and lived in a real place, Nazareth. So that's fundamentally what we as Christ's followers are to do as well: go into those places where there is real hurt, real sin, and live among them and strive to live the way of Christ."
Manhattan's unsavoriness, it seems, is part of the King's pitch to prospective students. The goal isn't exactly to rescue the place. But if casual conversations with the legions of godless residents veer to matters of faith, the wholesome-looking, Book-of-Matthew-quoting undergrads of the King's -- 220 of them, from 11 countries and 37 states -- will share the Good News, albeit gingerly. On some level, this is a massive student-abroad program, except the kids are from, say, Iowa instead of Norway, and meeting them sheds light on a literal reading of the Bible instead of the national appetite for smoked lamb's head.
But hang around these polite, untattooed lads and lasses and you get the sense that New York is leaving a far deeper impression on them than they are on the city. Many take a passive approach to spreading the Word, one that involves smiling and radiating contentedness and being ready if someone asks what makes them so happy. The problem is that when a 20-year-old coed grins at a stranger in this town, the stranger often gets the wrong idea. Everyone, it seems, has a story like this: