The first week of April saw a social-media-driven panic sweep across the campus of Indiana University. Starting around 9:15pm, students started tweeting about a sinister character prowling about campus seeking whom he might devour.
One student tweeted, “[IU] students be careful, there’s someone walking around in [KKK] gear with a whip.” Another complained about the school’s failure to “make students feel safe.”
A residence hall advisor then fired off an email saying, “There has been a person reported walking around campus in a KKK outfit holding a whip . . . I would recommend staying indoors if you’re alone.”
When an intrepid IU student confronted the threat at a local frozen yogurt shop—that’s your first clue—he did not find a Klansman, complete with hood and whip. Instead, he found a Dominican friar, Father Jude McPeak, whose “hood” turned out to be his habit and whose “whip” was his rosary.
And far from looking for someone to assault, Father McPeak was on his way back from a meeting with students. It wasn’t the only time he had been on campus: He often walks around IU praying for students.
For his part, Father McPeak chuckled and said it wasn’t the first time his appearance had ruffled some feathers. True, but it’s almost certainly the first time that people responded to his habit by asking him whether he hated black people.
Events in Bloomington reminded my colleague John Stonestreet of another example of ignorance about Christian faith and practice closer to his home. After the 2007 shootings at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a reporter asked a member of the church who witnessed the shootings whether they took place during or after “Mass.”
The witness said something along the lines of “huh?” and the reporter proceeded to use the word “Mass” eight more times. That a reporter, working in an Evangelical stronghold, would be so unacquainted with what goes on in all those churches is a classic example of the press “not getting” religion or religious people.
This failure is the subject of my friend Terry Mattingly’s website “Get Religion,” where he and other writers chronicle the media’s failure to understand the way faith impacts the lives of millions of Americans.
As events in Bloomington demonstrate, it’s not only the press. In an increasingly secular age, ordinary Americans know less and less about Christianity and much of what they claim to “know” is wrong, sometimes hilariously so.
Our response should not be anger or resignation. It should be a willingness to set the record straight in a way that does service to our faith. There’s ample historical precedent for this. The first great Christian apologetic work, The Apology of Justin Martyr, did just that. It defended Christianity against charges of atheism, immorality, and disloyalty to the Roman Empire.
Of course, for us to follow in Justin’s footsteps we need to know which end is up ourselves. That’s where the Colson Center and our partners come in. We can help with the “what” of the Christian faith and practice.
The “how,” as in being patient and kind, comes from God through prayer and meditating on the examples set by our Savior Himself and people like Justin, whose last name, in case you’re wondering, was not “Martyr.”
This commentary originally aired April 14, 2016.