Preaching at Virginia Tech

Preaching at Virginia Tech

The Chronicle of Higher Education came up with an interesting creative experiment in response to the Virginia Tech tragedy. The editors asked eleven academic leaders to imagine what would be “the core of the message” they would give if asked to be the commencement speaker this year at Virginia Tech. The results, published in the May 4 issue, give a good picture of how the present day academy deals with the fundamental issues of life.

While all of the writers make reference, of course, to the tragic circumstances, most of them use the occasion to rehearse themes that are standard fare of what we might think of as the “secular spirituality” on today’s campuses. Use this experience to cultivate empathy and solidarity with people around the world who are suffering in special ways. Promote non-violence. Don’t let tragedy define who you are. Don’t give in to fear and hatred. Promote multiculturalism.

With only one exception, the writers do not point to any resources beyond those that reside in the human spirit. The most blatantly “postmodern” preachment comes from the novelist Lionel Shriver. She acknowledges that the graduates may come away from this experience with a “leeriness” about other people, especially a distrust of “the strange, the suspiciously quiet” types in their midst. That posture of suspicion, she insists, can serve them well in life. But it will be most productive, she urges, if it is directed, not primarily toward others, but instead is directed inward. “Question your certitudes,” she proclaims. “Never forget that the more fiercely you believe a thing, the more likely it is that you are wrong.”

To be sure, Christians ought to worry about some of the same patterns of certitude that bother Ms. Shriver. She rightly acknowledges the threat posed by people whose lack of self-criticism fosters a spirit of “vengefulness, envy, grandiosity, self-righteousness” and the like. But from a biblical perspective those things are to be avoided, not by giving up on certitude as such, but by cultivating a sure and abiding trust in a God before whom we must constantly plead, “Search me and know my heart,…and see if there is any wicked way in me” (Ps. 139).

The one person who did point to the ways of God in his address is the psychiatrist Robert Coles. He tells a moving story about a 12-year-old girl who had been severely injured when hit by a car driven by a drunken driver. She struggled with a spirit of vengeance, but was able to draw on a her Christian faith to resist hating the person who had caused her great pain.

The Chronicle’s editors placed Coles’s contribution at the end of this set of imaginary homilies. So he got to say the last word to the graduates. And it was the right word: “May the good Lord bless all of you, all of us here in this strong and generous nation we are lucky to call our own.”


  1. Preaching at Virginia Tech

    Trackback by University Update — May 14, 2007 @ 11:01 am

  2. […] Preaching at Virginia Tech The Chronicle of Higher Education came up with an interesting creative experiment in response to the Virginia Tech tragedy. The editors asked eleven academic leaders to imagine what would be ?the core of the message? they would give if … […]

    Pingback by Chronicle Of Higher Education » Chronicle Of Higher Education May 14, 2007 2:49 pm — May 14, 2007 @ 11:54 am

  3. Isn’t it disturbing how our society is learning to embrace uncertainty as the only certainty, self-critique as the only honest response to horror inflicted on us? Where is the one who is just saying, “No. You were wronged. You were wronged.” and then she who was wronged learning to cry, to be embraced, to be healed, to rise up again as a beacon for the goodness in this world. It breaks my heart that we who have been given Truth so often refrain from allowing wisdom to have her say.

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Mouw.

    Comment by Diane S — May 14, 2007 @ 8:46 pm

  4. Dr. Mouw,
    I apologize for leaving this comment here, but if you are looking for material to discuss on this blog I would personally love to hear your response to the recent debate on Nightline (you can view it at between Kirk Cameron and “The Way of the Master” and Brian Sapient and the atheist community known as “The Rational Responders.” I found the debate hitting a superficial level of an historical argument and would love to hear your response. Specifically, if you were able to concisely break down the historical debate I think it would be beneficial for pastors in the “trenches” who are dealing with the fall out of the debate. Thanks!

    Comment by Josh Husmann — May 16, 2007 @ 5:08 pm

  5. Obviously, Shriver took her sentiments too far in the quotation cited. But wouldn’t it be more charitable to point out the probable good in her intention–namely, challenging the assumption people often make that their perception (which is colored by emotions, which spring from a perverse heart, filled with irrational fears and resentments and such)–again, that their limited human perception is flawless and that what seems right to them is absolute truth?

    It’s unfortunate that Shriver does not see that we have a more or less objective measure of truth through studying the scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and submitting ourselves to Christ as part of his church and so on.

    It just seems that Christians (myself especially) often feel that secular thinkers are our enemies and we rush to argue with them and prove them wrong. I suspect we would do better at helping them to know Christ by pointing out how at least some of their values, and their longing for good are not in opposition to the Christian faith and that we want to stand with them in opposition to injustice and so on.

    Sorry for rambling. Maybe someday I’ll organize my thoughts on the subject …

    Comment by Virgie — May 18, 2007 @ 8:23 am

  6. Dr. Mouw, your reference to the Agatha Christie mystery at Fuller’s 2006 graduation in which the detective declares to his misguided assistant “No, it’s him again” can be found in what Agatha Christie novel? Thanks

    Comment by Leslie Pollard — May 18, 2007 @ 9:25 pm