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Why we had FUN.

Monday, November 26, 2012

In the end, having FUN. come and perform on campus was as much about how to have a civil dialogue in the public square as it was enjoying a band that creates thoughtful, creative and exciting music. This kind of cultural engagement is a defining characteristic of Calvin College.

When we booked the band back in June, we knew we had invited good writers and storytellers. Their songs deal with the struggles of life—persevering through pain, establishing identity, finding love, figuring out relationships—without all the cynicism often found in contemporary pop culture. (For more analysis of their music see the review written by Jacqueline Ristola and Greg Veltman.)

We also knew the band’s values would not neatly line up with Calvin’s values. It is a goal of the Student Activities Office (SAO) to provide a lineup featuring the best and brightest artists of a wide array of genres. These artists include contemporary Christian musicians, Christians who perform in the mainstream and artists who would not call themselves Christians. In all of these areas SAO seeks to provide students with the tools and experiences necessary to discern the positive and negative messages of culture.

What we did not realize was how popular FUN. would become in five short months. They are almost single-handedly reviving pop music in America. Using their popularity as a platform the band chose to align themselves with an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality in what is called the Campus Consciousness Tour. The band requested that Calvin accommodate advocacy booths and add $1 per ticket for this cause. We did not agreed to the new request. Having advocacy booths on campus without the ability to contextualize it would lead to misunderstanding about the position of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) on marriage. We said no, and also stated that we do not allow money to be added to ticket prices for any cause. The band’s manager agreed to these terms.

That agreement is symbolic of where Calvin often finds itself—immersed in the challenge of trying to be in the world but not of the world. We know we do not always get it right, but we do our best discerning and then proceed with courage.

Members of the Calvin community expressed their concern about inviting a band that advocates against the CRC’s positions on homosexuality and marriage. Some called upon the college to cancel the concert. On the other side, the band considered pulling out a week before the concert when they were no longer comfortable with the concessions they had made.

Both sides considered what it meant to enter the public square together and into the tension between gay rights and religious freedom. It’s a place where too often there’s only shouting. We sought a way to be true to our values without succumbing to the culture war rhetoric coming from both sides.

With the support of the administration we chose to appeal to the band to hold to their commitment, which they considered while in New York taping for Saturday Night Live. They were told they could engage with our students in an afternoon Q&A session giving them opportunity to talk about their music and their causes. It’s the same opportunity afforded most artists and speakers that appear at Calvin for events like The January Series, Festival of Faith and Writing and Festival of Faith and Music. Additionally, Calvin has a LGBTQ com-munity and does not shy away from exposing students to both sides of the dialogue.

The band agreed to come and explained to their fans that, while it was easy to go and play on liberal east coast campuses, they saw an opportunity to have a civil dialogue in a place where their position would be met with opposition. They hoped to influence their audience and we hoped to influence them as artists. Both sides learned about each other.

This is real life. It’s the life in which our graduates will pursue their vocations. The LGBTQ conversation is only going to grow wider and Christians are still learning how to enter this conversation. Our goal at Calvin is to provide a safe place to talk about it.

FUN. came and played to a sold out arena of over 5,000 people. The band genuinely appreciated the Calvin students and staff. The lead singer, Nate Ruess, at one point remarked that this was one of two best concert experiences they have had. Before their encore, they did use the stage to briefly expound that God loves everyone and that God loves gays. They also mentioned that $1 of all ticket sales would be donated to their cause. For clarification, they donated the money from their own proceeds.

As Christians at Calvin, we do not believe everyone who comes to campus to perform or talk must share our beliefs. In creating a safe place to have civil dialogue and a context in which to discern, we can put aside fear and listen. We put assumptions aside and learned too. That’s what a good education does—helps us to learn and listen.

This is why we had FUN.