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Through our connections with CRU, a ministry that engages students and faculty on college campuses across the U.S., the Winsome Conviction Project received an invitation to provide training for a student group at UC Berkeley on how to have winsome conversations with people who hold opposing views. Tim and Rick reflect on this learning experience and the key questions and issues discussed among the group, including student’s perceptions of Jesus, and they share ideas on how to show faith matters in an environment that is rife with disagreement.


Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name's Rick Langer. I'm a professor at Biola University in the Biblical Studies and Theology department, the director of the Office of Faith and Learning, and also the co-director with my friend Tim of the Winsome Conviction Project.

Tim Muehlhoff: Good to be with you, Rick. We started this thing about four years ago.

Rick Langer: Wow.

Tim Muehlhoff: I know. With the idea that we wanted to be a resource to different kind of groups, and one of those groups outside the church, and obviously we care about Biola University, is Parachurch groups. We both have a Cru background. What's your association with Cru?

Rick Langer: Yeah, so I was part of Cru when I was first in high school, and then when I was in college, went overseas with them to Guam and India right after I graduated. I've had a long connection. It's really how I came to Christ and how I first grew in Christ. Fantastic, very much appreciate that season in my life that was so influential.

Tim Muehlhoff: And you have a Dennis Rainey connection.

Rick Langer: Yeah. You and I both have worked with Dennis. I got him before he was even doing Family Life, when he was our high school director at the Campus Crusade Ministry in my high school growing up.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's tremendous.

Rick Langer: So it's nuts. But what have you been doing lately? You've been on the road. Tell me the story.

Tim Muehlhoff: I have been on the road. Noreen and I were on staff with Cru almost 30 years and just absolutely love it. It played a huge part in our development, involved as undergraduates. I was at Eastern Michigan University, she was at the University of Connecticut, so we've always had a heart for Cru. We think they're doing a great job. And we want to be a resource, so we happen to know the people that work at Berkeley, which is about an hour and 10 minute flight away from here. And so we were invited recently to go to Berkeley, to help train Berkeley student leaders. There were about 20 of them, that we taught them a lot of things you hear about on this podcast, different communication techniques, how to organize a conversation, the pre-conversation, the post conversation. So we sat down with them because they need help.

Rick Langer: Because Berkeley is a pretty conservative, Christian friendly location, right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I actually did some research.

Rick Langer: Oh, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: And according to one site, Berkeley, that they ranked the top 25 most liberal colleges in the US. Four of the top five are located in the Bay Area. So UC Santa Cruz, grabbed the first spot on the list followed by San-

Rick Langer: The banana slums. There you go. All right.

Tim Muehlhoff: Followed by San Francisco State University, Columbia College, Chicago, Mills College, and then Berkeley.

Rick Langer: Oh, yeah. All right.

Tim Muehlhoff: So interesting about the demographics real quick. Why maybe some of the conservative students on campus feel a little bit out of place. For UC Berkeley, there is a split of, for every one conservative professor there are nine self-identified liberal professors. Stanford, in contrast, found that it was more like a, for every one there was seven. So Berkeley, because of their reputation, they're the home of the free speech movement. Their heyday was really... People remember the sixties, the Vietnam protests, that they tend to attract-

Rick Langer: People's Park, all of those kind of things. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: So Christian students there feel a little bit isolated, and so any chance that we get to be able to go and encourage these students, we jump on it. So I got a chance to go with Dr. Mike On who is helping with the Winsome Conviction Project. By the way, he was accepted to Berkeley but didn't go, which was very interesting to say to the audience. So we spent the first night with these 20 students talking about our three conversation model. Great students.

Rick Langer: Pre-conversation, conversation itself, and the post conversation model.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Which they found incredibly helpful to think about all that it takes to have a conversation with your liberal professor or liberal classmates, or roommates and stuff like that.

Rick Langer: And you say liberal and conservative, I think... You and I both spend a lot of time at secular, higher education institutions, and I think for both, I imagine, I know for me the political issues were less of an issue than an animosity or silent disdain towards religion that's quite independent of the political thing itself. There's a tendency Christian Evangelicals to associate more on average conservative over liberal, but the disdain and dismissal of things religious was palpable. And that, it seems, has gotten considerably worse since we were in graduate school.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, and the word disdain is what I think a lot of those students would use. One student leader with Cru is a political science major, which you can imagine political science at Berkeley. And she would say that's what it was. It was just this constant belittling of her beliefs, and that there was never both sides of the issue given on any issue. It was always what we'd traditionally call the liberal perspective. So one thing that they would do is they take classes together. I thought this was a great idea that Cru students buddy up and try to take classes.

Rick Langer: So there's somebody else in the class with them to be your compatriots, so to speak.

Tim Muehlhoff: Which is such a wise thing to do.

Rick Langer: It is.

Tim Muehlhoff: Is to have a person that you can process with and not just go it alone. When I was at UNC Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman was there, and we'd have students go, "I'm going to take his class." Bart Ehrman is a very liberal New Testament scholar who doesn't believe many of the things that we believe, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, doesn't believe the Bible's inspired. And these dear Cru students at UNC Chapel Hill would say, "I'm going to take his class and be a witness." But they would do it by themselves, and they would find themselves getting compromised almost like the frog in a kettle that's becoming hot. So that was the first night. The second night we decided, wouldn't it be interesting to go to the very famous quad where the free expression movement started and do surveys that the Winsome Conviction Project had created and given to crew leaders, and they had been doing it the entire week, Rick, before we got there.

Rick Langer: Oh, wow. Good work.

Tim Muehlhoff: That was great. And so we got a chance to show up me and Dr. On, and we went out, we got paired up with Cru students, and we went out and did some surveys. It was utterly fascinating. Now, that night we were going to do a campus-wide event on how to have political conversations that are civil. Obviously we weren't taking a side, we were just trying to present how to have these conversations. So as we did the surveys, we were passing out flyers. "Hey, come-

Rick Langer: Come join us.

Tim Muehlhoff: Come join us. Then we used God's greatest gift to evangelism, pizza.

Rick Langer: Oh yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Pizza.

Rick Langer: There you go. The pizza party. Got it.

Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, it was some really good pizza, by the way. So I will read to you and they just summarized some of the answers that we got.

Rick Langer: From the survey.

Tim Muehlhoff: From the survey.

Rick Langer: Okay. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: So here's the very first question on the survey. "According to one survey, 67% of Americans feel incivility has reached crisis levels. Do you agree? If so, why is there so much incivility?" So here are some answers. Yes, I agree and absolutely linked it to news media. That news media is so polarized, right? Another one said yes, and that it's become normalized. That if you were to go back to the 1950s, the forties, the thirties, it's not that people didn't disagree with each other, but today, almost speaking to each other in negative ways on social media, and even our news programs, has just become normalized. And now we don't even second guess it. We just do it. Boy, that's kind of insightful.

Rick Langer: Being uncivil is become the new normal.

Tim Muehlhoff: The new norm.

Rick Langer: It's part of normal civil discourse, so to speak, is to be uncivil, which is interesting.

Tim Muehlhoff: Another person said, yeah, I do agree. And I think part of the reason is that today we're only presented with extremes. This really mirrors the work of James Davison Hunter, that there's the excluded middle that nobody cares about what we think because it's just not provocative enough. People care more about their egos and getting their agenda than they do about unity. I thought, man, I thought that's really, really good stuff. Us versus them mentality. We've lost what is common to Americans. What's the core that brings us together? I thought that was really good. Another person agrees. Media really shapes how people think today, and we have no way of challenging media. They just do their own thing.

Yes, because I feel that the environment today rewards black and white thinking. There's no room for nuance. So I thought, wow, people are really understanding that today we're in an environment that we really disagree with each other. And that, yeah, count me in. I think we've got problems when it comes to civility today. So Rick, it made me think what a great opportunity for the church to step in and show people how to have convictions, but to share it in a way that isn't offensive right out of the gates, or opens lines of dialogue, doesn't shut lines of dialogue. So I think we have an opportunity here to step in, I think-

Rick Langer: To do something differently.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I think Berkeley students would agree with that. Okay, next question. "Since the 2016 presidential election, nearly a third of people report they have stopped talking to a friend or family member due to political disagreements. Have you, or anyone you know, stopped talking to a family member due to a political disagreement?" Overwhelmingly, yes.

Rick Langer: Wow.

Tim Muehlhoff: A friend has stopped talking with their family members. They no longer talk. One woman, this is a survey I did, she's gay, and was immediately kicked out of her family, and hasn't spoken to her family in years and years and years. And we just said, "Hey, I'm so sorry." That's the case. Yes. My mom no longer talks to one of her brothers.

Rick Langer: Wow.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, the tension is real. And I have a ton of friends who say they're no longer in contact with a lot of their family members, and they go off to Berkeley and just kind of forget them. Or here's the other version of it, okay, is yeah, we just don't talk about politics anymore.

Rick Langer: Yeah. So it becomes a former conversation topic that has just been written out of the possible fields of discourse, so to speak.

Tim Muehlhoff: Disagreement with his father's parents because they're dismissive and they're willfully ignorant. They don't want to know, and make life complex. We no longer talk about politics, which, by the way, Rick, this is crazy because we know as some prognosticators have said, this next presidential election, people are anticipating is going to be one of the most volatile, divisive presidential elections coming. So it can't be a strategy of just saying, "We're not going to talk about politics." I don't think we have that luxury in our churches, our family or our neighborhoods, just to say, "Yeah, we're going to avoid this massive election that's going to be on us pretty quickly."

Rick Langer: And Tim, we talk a fair bit about the analogy of problems with the church, problems politically, problems with family, that there's a lot of parallels to all these things, which I think is simply true, and that's why we talk about that way a lot. But it is interesting with the country. After this election, if you don't like the way it comes out, do you go to a different country the way you might go to a different church if they got a pastor you didn't like or something like that? And there's not really a good option for doing that.

Now I am increasingly seeing some political leader, I believe it's Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was talking about having a divorce, a national divorce, and these sorts of problems I think people are beginning to think more seriously about. But the bottom line is, I would love for us to be able to look at each other and say, "Guys, we have to make this work just like you have to make a marriage work." So we're not going to go consumer. We don't have an option. So we better talk about it because what's our alternative to discourse? Do we do violence? What's the plan if we can't talk?

Tim Muehlhoff: I remember, people have said this before, it seemed like 911 brought us together, despite our differences, and COVID separated us.

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Because we so quickly politicized COVID. That wasn't even the unifying factor anymore with us. Okay, another question we thought was interesting to ask Berkeley students, "What does it mean to cancel a person?"

Rick Langer: Ooh. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: "And is it ever justified?"

Rick Langer: Interesting. So what did they say about that?

Tim Muehlhoff: Here we go. So canceling a person is two major things rose to the top. One, you shame them. I disagree with you, but I shame you that you wouldn't dare pop your head back up again. And then the second major idea was you silence a person. You don't debate them, you silence them because their perspective is so egregious. You so demonize their perspective. Is it ever-

Rick Langer: [inaudible 00:15:03] Included shouting them down?

Tim Muehlhoff: Shouting them down?

Rick Langer: I think of the protests, and Berkeley is one of the places.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Berkeley is one of the places. Yeah. "Is it ever justified?" I was encouraged that it was split. It wasn't a unified, "Yeah, I think there's some things we just cancel people." That's so weird. Sitting in the quad of the free expression movement that, Rick, they have a huge seal right there in the concrete that says, "This is a space that shall be governed by free ideas." So in one way it was encouraging in the macro sense of today's cancel culture, but that it was split at Berkeley was actually disconcerting. You're standing right next to the seal, by the way. It's right there. But some people felt like, "Absolutely, I cancel you. Your view is so abhorrent, I don't need to debate it. I don't need to consider it." Now, you and I both know that when we were in grad school, people would have looked at our views and said they were abhorrent, and that they don't deserve to be even debated because they're so unseemly or just wrong, and we'd be canceled.

Rick Langer: Yeah. So I'm thinking about that, Tim. I feel like what would happen is that people wouldn't talk to you or they wouldn't come to your event or whatever. It's a little different than trying to make people lose their job, get shamed publicly, that shaming language, lose their friendships. To kick them out of the community. That's a little different than just simply being the black sheep in the family, but you're still in the family, so to speak.

Tim Muehlhoff: And that same question, "What might we do to make our conversations more civil? Could you list two or three suggestions?" I thought this was fascinating. They really struggled to list-

Rick Langer: To even list suggestions.

Tim Muehlhoff: To list two or three. I would have thought people would be popping with the stuff that this whole podcast is about. I mean listening, if nothing else. I was a little surprised they struggled. One person said, "I'd speak directly to a person," which I think is good. Let that person define themselves. Don't just assume because you're a Berkeley student, you're X or you're a Biola student, your Y. I thought that was good. A person couldn't think of anything. Acknowledge the other person, acknowledge what they're saying. I think that's a good... See both sides of the issue. I think that's really wise. Be respectful. When asked, what is respectful, the person said, "I'm not totally sure what I would say about that." Don't respond quickly. Take time to respond. Stop all social media, is what one person said. What are your two, three suggestions? I just got one.

Rick Langer: Stop-

Tim Muehlhoff: Get off.

Rick Langer: ... social media. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Social media. Okay. Now this is... Because this was Cru. We decided to evoke a little bit of Jesus into it. Just to see what people think. So as you understand Jesus, is he a positive role model in today's argument culture?

Rick Langer: Oh, interesting.

Tim Muehlhoff: Now, Rick, without a doubt, almost every... By the way, to my knowledge, we didn't come across one Christian with these surveys.

Rick Langer: In the surveys.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Almost to a T. And I was encouraged by this, very positive view of Jesus overall, but clearly a man, clearly a historical figure, a peace lover. I think he did some good things, but he's not God. He's just... One person identified him as a social worker. Another person said, I think he's on par with Buddha. So there's definitely a view of Jesus that he's not... The divinity has been stripped from Jesus. But I was encouraged that they were mostly positive towards this humanized version of Jesus. I guess in my stereotype, my uneducated stereotype, I would have expected maybe a little bit more hostility that he's judgmental or something like that. We didn't pick up on that.

Rick Langer: Yeah, I think people associate that with the church and they disassociate that with Jesus. And I'm not sure that that is actually... I mean, Jesus had some strong words for people when you read through the gospels, but I doubt that many people have stopped to read that. And indeed he did have a knack for doing a lot of things with gentleness and compassion. It's not an unfair summary at all of Jesus. I think there's an easiness for disdaining the church that's harder to apply to Jesus.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. And there was also another strain with this question. "Is Jesus a positive role model?" So here's Berkeley, which is one of the top academic institutions in the country. These are sincerely smart students. There was a lot of students who did not know who Jesus was. They did not know who he was.

Rick Langer: What did they say?

Tim Muehlhoff: They said, I honestly don't know about Him. I don't know much about Him. I got a chance to speak to a woman from Norway who had been here on a one-year exchange program. She was great, by the way. She was super friendly. We had a great conversation. She said, "Honestly, in Norway, we're not religious. We're atheists. I don't really know much about Him." And I said, "Oh, would you be..." So here's the last question. "Would you like more information about Jesus and the peace he could possibly bring to not only society, but to yourself personally?" Overwhelmingly, no. Now, I don't know if that's a critique of doing a survey. And again, Berkeley, doing surveys is the backstroke.

Rick Langer: Sure.

Tim Muehlhoff: That quad, Rick, was amazing quad. You had every kind of group you can imagine. There was obviously the Israeli situation was happening in full bloom. You had a Christian group singing hymns, every kind of religious group. So the electricity was really pretty cool. And if you're sitting in that quad, you're saying, in some ways-

Rick Langer: You're begging for it.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, that's not the place to sit if you want to be alone. But I thought it was interesting that at least the people I talked to did not want to bite on more information about Jesus. It seemed like they had already decided this just isn't for me. Made me a little bit sad that I didn't get a chance... I was really hoping to pull out, what we call, the four spiritual laws, but really never got a chance to do that. Now, invited, by the way, what was cool, we invited some people to come and they actually came to that evening of how to have a political conversation in a civil way, where we got a chance to talk about the value God can bring to helping you have a sense of peace and how to deescalate yourself.

So that was kind of cool that we invited some people and they actually came to the event that night. So we're committed to helping places like Berkeley, where people feel ostracized. And I think it was really good for them to see two PhDs that are fully committed to Jesus. Maybe they've been told, the more educated you get, the more you don't need Jesus. So I think it was good for us to show up and say, Hey, you've got a lot of compatriots at Biola University. We're both PhDs, and we believe exactly like you guys do. I think that was kind of affirming to them.

Rick Langer: Yeah. Well, I think it is, in a sense I think Berkeley, and almost all of higher education, it is not at all just Berkeley, but if you go across the board for what they call R1 research University, so the most influential research-oriented, elite academic institutions in our country, the numbers that you were talking about, ten to one or even more in many departments of people, progressive mindset over conservative mindset, irreligious over religious, disdain for religious figures. You're thinking of sending our college students to live for four years in that kind of an environment. And I do want to say, boy, that is a place, I admire the wisdom of the students that said, "Let me go with a friend to this class. Let me do things where I'm not alone." Because in effect, people made to feel alone, and they're made to feel silenced and unwelcome in their academic realm.

A lot of kind of ordinary, just pushbacks or differences. Can we still have differences about issues? Be they things about abortion, L-G-B-T-Q, all these controversial issues. Are there areas that we see things differently, and is an alternative viewpoint welcome? And I think a lot of times people experience the answer to that is no, no, and no. We are just not doing that. And so I admire, appreciate, want to support students who are in those environments. We both spent a good chunk of time in that kind of an environment. And it's a good thing to just say, let me acquire skills for navigating that.

And I think that is one of the things that we really want to do. And my hope is that those kinds of places actually serve to deepen people's convictions, not dismantle them. Because that's one of the things that you're often pressed to do is just think one step more about what you believe. And in so many of the places, when you hang out with just people that you already agree with, you're encouraged to think one step less. You don't ask probing questions because people begin to say, "Wait a minute, are you on the other side? Are you playing for the enter team? You're not cheering for the Red Wings. What's wrong here?" And so there's a great value in people doing that, but they have a great need for, I guess, both prayer support and friendship.

Tim Muehlhoff: And I would add... So we wrote, the very first book we ever wrote together was Winsome Persuasion, which would be for the Berkeley folks. And we can't forget that the Holy Spirit takes what we do, and even though initially it might seem like, "Wow, okay, I didn't get a chance to share the gospel once," That the Holy Spirit isn't using that to soften a person's heart. And my favorite story, Rick, is I was on staff with Cru at Miami of Ohio University in Oxford, Ohio. I literally get there. I'm sharing my faith for the first time in Arby's in Oxford, and I sit down with this guy he's agreed to meet, and I pull out the four spiritual laws, that orange book, I set it on the table. I swear to you, this guy goes, "Yeah, okay, I'm ready." I'm like, "What?" He goes, "Yeah, I want to do this, that book.

I want to do the book." I'm like, "What?" He goes, "Dude, three years ago I was drunk out of my mind at Daytona Beach and some guy came up to me and gave me a four laws. I think he went through it with me. But honestly, I was totally wasted. I kept that book forever, it was soaked in beer, water. The pages were coming out. And I honestly have read it a ton and it was just..." He didn't know you could do it by yourself. And he said, "I'm just waiting for somebody else to bring this booklet out." And he said, "When you brought that thing out, I'm there." So think about that, Rick, drunk out of his mind, yet the Holy Spirit can get through. And he'd been thinking about it for years. So honestly, at Berkeley, who knows the seeds that were sown. Yeah. Which is great.

Rick Langer: And seeing people who are going, yeah, I'm not interested in hearing more about this. But on the other hand, they come around to hear, well, what are we going to say about that night? And I think that is one of the things where there's a lot more hope than our culture would probably have us believe about most anything. We're kind of in a despairing time. And I would like to be a voice for saying, "You know what? God's got a knack for working really well in despairing times."

Tim Muehlhoff: Remember Dr. Bill Bright? "Be faithful and leave the results to God." And I just think that's brilliant. So Rick and I are just very appreciative that a lot of the thoughts of the Winsome Conviction Project honestly germinated in our time with Cru. And we're just deeply appreciated. And that's why we make time to go to places like Berkeley, to encourage Christians and to hopefully put on an event that got people thinking about the usefulness of God in these crazy divisive times.

Rick Langer: It's one of the ways we show that our faith actually matters. Because our faith has shaped us in such a way that we respond to, we treat, we care about issues deeply, but we may treat others differently. And I think that's one of our great witnesses when we do that well, it's very compelling. So thanks for joining us for this episode of the Winsome Conviction Podcast. Thanks for taking a little trip with us to Berkeley. And we encourage you to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you get them, and become a regular listener. Thanks again for being with us.