Online students get new source of spiritual guidance
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Abby, meet Theophilus.
Theophilus … Abby.
While they’re not quite the same thing, there is a link between the “Dear Abby” column, which began appearing in newspapers in 1956, and the new “Dear Theophilus” blog post that recently was created by the College of Theology at Grand Canyon University. They both involve giving advice to those who need it, with two important differences.
First, Abby is the one doing the advising while Theophilus was on the receiving end of Luke’s thoughts in the Bible. The name appears in both Luke 1:3 (“With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus”) and Acts 1:1 (“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach …”), and there are various theories about who Theophilus might have been.
“Whatever might have been the relationship between Luke and Theophilus,” Dr. Sammy Alfaro, the COT faculty member who conceived and created the new blog, wrote in the site’s first post, “we can conclude one thing for sure: Luke intends to instruct Theophilus in his faith. Luke’s purpose is for Theophilus to ‘know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed’ (Luke 1:4).
“Whether Theophilus was the patron who sponsored the writing of Luke’s gospel or a high ranking official who could be favorably influential in Paul’s trials, he was a believer who needed a deeper comprehension of the Christian faith. Theophilus was a Christian who lived and worked in secular society just like most Christians do today.”
Second, while typical Abby headlines are along the lines of “Nosy Co-Worker Makes a Stink over Office Perfume Policy” and “Mom’s Grip on Apron Strings Has Girlfriend at Loose Ends,” the Theophilus blogs are strictly spiritual. The modern world seems to have a never-ending need for solutions to disputes in the office and at home, but COT online faculty members at GCU – especially those who teach the Christian Worldview class – get just as many faith-based questions from students.
How often is often?
“Daily,” said one of those instructors, Dr. Valerie De La Torre. “There are always theological types of questions. We want them to critically think. We don’t want to just give answers, and we don’t want to preach. We do want to provide great information in every way we can.”
Typical questions that De La Torre gets:
- Why is there sin and suffering? “We get that from a lot of students who have suffered and see all the painful events in the world, past and present,” she said.
- Which church is the best one? Or, do I need to go to church at all?
- How are we supposed to weigh scientific beliefs against the tenets of Christianity? Or, as De La Torre has been asked, “How can we believe in a Jesus that appears in ancient fables and stories?”
“That’s an easy one,” she said. “They are not only fables and stories. They are real historical events. But as I tell them, ‘You’re a product of what you’ve been taught in the past.’ The concept of truth is up for grabs these days.”
Alfaro views “Dear Theophilus” as an important way to reach out to online students, both Christians who mainly have questions and non-Christians who mainly have doubts. De La Torre estimates that about one-fifth to one-third of her students fall in the latter category.
“I always want to make them comfortable,” she said. “I say, ‘Please share your feelings. We’re talking with you, not at you.’”
Alfaro said that “Dear Theophilus,” in addition to being a go-to site for online students, also could be a useful resource to churches in the Valley looking for an information source. It even could help GCU faculty members outside the College of Theology who just need clarification on a spiritual message or don’t feel qualified to have a conversation of that nature with a student without some sort of backup.
The main goal is simply to serve a need.
“I think that the more we know about our faith, it makes for better conversations,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re not understanding or we’re talking past each other. I think as a church we need to be very open to anyone coming in.”
De La Torre’s blog answered this question from a student: Does God continue to love and forgive us when we constantly let Him down and always say that we are going to do better?
“God sees our worth and value, and desires we have all of Him,” she wrote. “In turn, we are healed in our human spirit, each and every time we experience God’s restorative forgiveness in those needful, stubborn and often gloomy places within ourselves. His love for us will never give up or hold back anything that aids in our spiritual transformation.”
The third blog so far was written by Brett Berger in response to this question: In Christianity, many people appear to be very certain in their beliefs. They are assured or certain their beliefs are true. How is it that I believe but still manage to have doubts?
“Doubt can work a good result,” he wrote. “As rival beliefs arise in conflict with our previous held beliefs, we are challenged to faithfulness. Faithfulness here is not to blindly persist in unwarranted belief as some define it. Rather, we are challenged to come back to reason to pursue the truth and seek what is good.
“It is no virtue to persist doubtlessly in false beliefs. Neither is it virtuous to jettison our beliefs at the first experience of opposition, tension, temptation or emotional distress.”
A new blog will be posted every two weeks. The idea, Alfaro said, is to be “direct, to the point and Biblically grounded.”
Abby, take note. Luke was ahead of your time – by almost 2,000 years.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.