This article was written for the USU Statesman newspaper not long after I left Cache Valley. I thought it was very encouraging.
Evangelical Preacher Courts Controversy at USU
By Jon Adams
For the first time in a long time, Utah State University has felt like…well, a university—a marketplace of ideas. There has been a heated, yet healthy religious dialogue on campus the past few weeks.
Eli Brayley, a young preacher from Canada, has been traveling across the continent to call people to repentance and share with them the "transforming power" of Christianity. At only 21, he has preached in 30 states and at 64 campuses. His visit to USU raised a lot of eyebrows (and voices); it brought some sorely needed controversy to our campus.
Without any religious affiliation, I had little emotional investment in the spirited back-and-forth between Eli and his predominantly Mormon audience here at USU. Instead, I was thoroughly amused by it. Listening to both sides debate whose faith was more irrational, I couldn't help but think, "Thank God I'm an atheist."
Once the crowds died down, I often found the opportunity to speak with Eli one-on-one. I was impressed by his knowledge of the Bible and surprised by his personal warmth. For so vocal a preacher, he is actually a rather soft-spoken person.
During the course of his ministry here at USU, we developed an unlikely friendship. We recently spent a few hours discussing religion and politics over dinner at the Bluebird. Neither of us walked away having persuaded the other, but I left with an increased understanding of and respect for Eli. As such, I feel obligated to dispel some misconceptions surrounding his motives and message.
Too many students unfairly dismissed Eli as a hateful provocateur. I am convinced, though, that Eli has a genuine love for people. He has dedicated years of his life to preaching across Canada and the US—without pay. And I have seen him spend hours with individual students, sharing with them a message he believes will spare them an eternity in Hell. At the very least, he had the courage to stand up for what he believes and that alone should command our respect.
The biggest criticism leveled against Eli is that his approach was too abrasive. Many students complain that Eli exhibited arrogance in pacing about the TSC patio, waving his worn Bible and pointing a judgmental finger at us "sinners."
While I'd agree that his "repent or burn" refrain was less than endearing, it is also worth mentioning that Eli's style was no more confrontational than was Jesus'. Not only did Jesus routinely lord the threat of Hell over his detractors, he also called them "fools" (Matthew 23:17) and "evil vipers" (Matthew 12:34).
Eli's approach stands in stark contrast to the familiar door-to-door approach of smiley LDS missionaries. Open-air preaching, however, was once common in missions. LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, for example, spent his mission proselytizing from street corners in London. A couple of my friends who went on European missions told me they still occasionally preached this way.
Mormon students took particular offense at Eli's contention that they were not true Christians. But again, Mormons would be wise to familiarize themselves with their own history. Since its inception, the LDS church has made similar accusations. Joseph Smith called other Christian churches "abominations," and John Taylor, the third president of the church, said "the Devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work" than Christianity. How are these statements markedly different than Eli's anti-Mormon sentiments? Today's Mormonism has toned down the rhetoric, but implicit in its claim to be the one true church is a repudiation of all other religions.
Mormons demand that their missionaries be received with an open mind (and they should), but the favor is rarely returned for others. The USU student body flung scoffs, insults, and in one instance a rock at Eli.
I'm not asking that you respect his beliefs, only that you recognize his right to express them. I myself don't agree with what Eli preached. Frankly, I think Eli's religious beliefs insult both his and our intelligence. The evangelical view of grace reduces salvation to a game of hide-and-seek—"I need to find Jesus? He's hiding?!" And his holy book reads like a Medieval fairy-tale, complete with dragons, witches, and unicorns (really). The way I figure, why be born-again when you can just grow up?
And yet, despite my disapproval of his message, I nonetheless am grateful that Eli visited USU. He left for Canada earlier this week, but I hope our university continues to court controversy. Because as a public institution for higher learning, USU has that responsibility.
To borrow the words of Frederick Douglass, the famed black activist: "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want rain without thunder and lightning."