"Congrats, seniors, this will be a heck of a graduation." That's how a New York University press release breathlessly announced the commencement snaring of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Other schools swoon over presidents: Barack Obama will speak at Barnard College (Columbia University) and Bill Clinton at little Columbia College in South Carolina.
Many universities think that TV names make a heck of a graduation, so Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, and Brian Williams are orating at prestigious schools, and CNN host/Time editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria is playing a Harvard and Duke doubleheader. Happily, some Christian colleges are counter-cultural: Biola students will hear artist (and WORLD's 2005 Daniel of the Year) Makoto Fujimura, and Covenant College students will hear pastor Tullian Tchividjian (See WORLD, July 16, 2011).
Other Christian schools also show understanding that the primary purpose of their commencements is to glorify God who knit together each graduate, not to worship human idols. But commencement season has gotten me thinking about what the goal for all Christian speakers should be: Instead of plotting how to become more famous and sell more books, we should always aim to put the spotlight on Christ.
Spotlighting Christ means more than a lack of selfishness, because it also means not making our chief end the winning of support on a favorite issue. For example, let's say you can show that same-sex marriage is not good for children and even for the partners themselves. That's fine, but if you just use social science data to make your point, and leave out God because you don't want to upset anyone in your audience, you are worshipping created things rather than the Creator.
Natural law reasoning by itself is also useful but not sufficient for Christians, because our primary goal is not to glorify reason but to glorify God who created reason. Educated by pulp fiction and TV shows, we tend to think that a mystery is something solvable through reason, but in Paul's epistles (see Ephesians 3:3-6) only revelation can solve a mystery. That's certainly true about the mystery of marriage: If we don't recognize Christ's preeminence in molding a husband and wife over decades, our prattling about joyful lifetime marriage sounds like a fairy tale.
Seven chapters toward the end of Exodus—one of those purportedly boring sections of Scripture—show well how revelation is the parent, reason the child. In the first six God tells the Israelites how to make and order the tabernacle, which will be the center of their worship in the wilderness. In the seventh, Exodus 31, God rests and says a team of craftsmen will "devise artistic designs," cut stones, carve wood, and so on, "according to all I have commanded." They are to use their reason in accord with God's revelation.
Natural law trumps positive, man-made law, and sometimes a reasonable examiner of human nature and society can discern valid moral principles. But since so much is mystery, the Bible trumps everything else, and Christian speakers should recognize that by citing facts but also pointing to Christ, the maker of facts. The best way to do that is debatable, and in-your-face rants before secular audiences are wasted opportunities—but so are academic speeches that stick Christian commitment behind the back.
I'm not saying that God decreeth one particular style. I am saying that our goal is to show Christ's preeminence in all things. Will that emphasis hurt your attempt to win support for your particular issue or organization? Maybe, but is your chief end to win a particular debate or to help people embrace Jesus? When Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson (WORLD, April 21) spoke at the presidential prayer breakfast in 1997 and at Columbine High School following the terrible shootings in 1999, organizers each time told him, "Don't mention Jesus." Both times he disobeyed: "If we are true Christians we have to be willing to stand up for what we believe."
I've had that experience and come to that conclusion in lesser forums. It's nothing new. In Acts, chapter 4, rulers told Peter and John to stop talking about Jesus, but they responded, "We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
Commencement speakers who are Christians and are reading this: Please speak of Christ. It will be one heck of a graduation ceremony.