“Three men walk into a bar.” It’s the set-up for most of the jokes I remember. They’re the kind of jokes that the drunk great-uncle tells at Christmas whilst you titter awkwardly into your fruit cake: often racist, often sexist and always offensive.
Let me tell you a joke.
A girl walks into a bar. She’s tall and blonde, with a privately-funded white smile. My male friend sitting next to me proceeds to ogle her.
“Fit,” he proclaims, “fit as.”
Another male friend laughs. “Don’t even bother going there, mate,” he says, nodding towards the girl. “She’s CU.”
The first friend looks back at the girl and then down at his drink ruefully. “CU,” he says, the two syllables hammer blows in the final nail of the coffin. CU. Two letters, spelling out abrupt endings to chat-up attempts, awkward pauses between strangers during Fresher’s Week; two letters deemed sufficient to define and dismiss a person in a heartbeat. CU: The Christian Union Society. It isn’t a particularly funny punch line.
I’m not a religious person. I think of myself as an agnostic, happily perched on the fence swinging my legs and waving to those either side of me. However, as a chorister in York Minster cathedral from the age of eight to thirteen, I grew up with a healthy respect for religion. Each day I was surrounded by people who had dedicated their lives to God. Although you may question it or disagree with it, it’s hard not to wonder at faith that strong.
Naively, when I arrived at university last September, I believed that other students would also hold a similar view. I imagined students having heated debates- over politics, religion, music, life- before sharing a beer, respecting the each other’s right to an opinion. Instead, university proved a Pandora’s Box of religious stereotypes. Sitting in a friend’s room during Fresher’s, when our conversation turned towards a boy we both knew to be in the CU society, the friend shook her head.
“I don’t understand them,” she said, “They’re all just brainwashed.”
At most universities, there are a number of faith-based societies, ranging from J-Soc (the Jewish Society) and ISoc (the Islamic society) to MethAng (the Methodist and Anglican society). There are certain stigmas and stereotypes attached to all of them, in the exact same way ‘the rugby lad’ has become a typecast. However, it is the CU which seems to be under the most scrutiny by students.
Right from my first week I was aware that being in CU somehow marked you out. Membership rendered you a lesser student, automatically barring you from sex, alcohol and nights out- the ‘key’ components of the university experience. I’m far from the only student aware of these stereotypes. Robin, a student at Canterbury Christ Church, says “Some people might not think they’re ‘cool’ if they join a certain religious group. They may feel alienated from other students.”Georgie, a student at Warwick, agrees. “There is a stigma, but more so about Christians than any other religion. Stereotypical faith member as far as I can tell tends to be female, and really smiley and keen to talk about their religion.”
American teen-culture has done much to establish and enforce this perception. In films like Easy-A and television shows such as Glee, religious- and specifically Christian- High School clubs and cliques are portrayed as self-righteous, its members ‘Bible-bashers’. The focus is often on student celibacy. One scene in Glee shows a meeting of the ‘Celibacy Club’. The club is portrayed as absurd; at the mention of the word ‘contraception’ its president Quinn shouts “Don’t you dare mention the C-word!” The female members are also shown as teases: “Remember the power-motto girls: ‘It’s all about the teasing and not about the pleasing.’” As shown by my friend in the bar, this latter stereotype has been particularly successful in its journey across the pond.
Examining the various stereotypes surrounding CUs, I became curious as to what its members thought of them. Jessie, a first-year CU member at Exeter, says she finds people’s preconceptions hard to cope with. “Telling people you’re a Christian when you come to uni, before people know you, is terrifying ,” she explains, “people do tend to form an opinion about you that you’re a ‘bible basher’ or a ‘goodie goodie’ type person and I know I struggled, and still do struggle with that!” Another anonymous member told me “I think there is definitely some stigma. People are always shocked to learn that some CU people enjoy drinking and going out, for example.”
Some university CUs are actively trying to combat these assumptions. ‘Text A Toastie’ is a popular scheme aimed at getting CU members and non-members in dialogue; students are invited to text a question about Christianity with the promise that a member of CU will arrive at your door with a free toastie and answer to your question. Some students are less than impressed by the scheme. Robin says “I personally think it’s a shame that for some people to feel comfortable speaking about religious issues there has to be food involved.” However, what it does succeed in proving is that Christians are not a clique from a teen-movie, but a group open to discussion and debate. Today university students are lucky enough to have religious freedom and the facilities to express it.
Now we have another goal: freedom from stereotype.