Students at Pepperdine debate the value of a contemporary Christian aesthetic

Delanie Carpenter, sophomore religion and political science major, poses in the amphitheatre, wearing her cross necklace, purity ring and “He Would Love First” bracelet (Photo by Brooke Bakken).

 Cross necklaces, upbeat Christian music and Bible journaling with pretty drawings.

All of these things could be considered part of a “Christian aesthetic,” which includes wearing or displaying Christian-esque clothing, jewelry, stickers or other paraphernalia, or posting on social media to share participation in trending faith practices. This Christian aesthetic is popular among Pepperdine students, but students debated whether this aesthetic helps or hurts Christians with their goal of honoring and loving God.

Delanie Carpenter, sophomore religion and political science major, said she enjoys participating in the contemporary Christian style within reason.

“Following Jesus is not a trend,” Carpenter said. “It’s a lifestyle.”

Christianity at Pepperdine is prevalent but not overbearing, students said. As a whole, Christian students at Pepperdine said they desire to work toward a genuine faith and love for God.

Outward expression of Christianity

Some Christians at Pepperdine use clothing, jewelry and Instagram biographies to put their faith on display. 

“People get the feeling that if they show they are connected to the Christian identity or committed to it, that they will have more opportunity or have better status,” Religion Professor David Lemley said.

Carpenter said she finds value in outwardly expressing her identity in Christ.

“My hope is that someone will ask me, “What does that shirt mean?” or “Why do you always wear that cross necklace?” or “Why do you always wear that ring?” Carpenter said.

She said wearing Christian apparel can be a great opportunity to spread the Gospel with those who may be curious.

First-year education major Ariel Miles said wearing a symbol of Christianity is comforting.

“If I have a test or something, I’ll wear my cross necklace just as a, ‘I have Jesus with me.’” Miles said.

Saylor Stottlemyer, a junior religion and pre-medicine major and Rockwell Towers spiritual life advisor, said she likes to stay away from the Christian trends because she doesn’t want to be put into a group of today’s Christians. She prefers to keep her relationship with God personal and only focuses on the faith itself.

Similarly, Chris Ganey, a junior finance major and J. Pengilly SLA, said he does not participate in the current Christian trends, and argues that Christians might be using their identity in Christ for the wrong reasons.

“Sometimes we can wear it as a badge and it becomes a source of pride where we feel a ‘holier than thou’ aspect,” Ganey said.

Miles said she has not noticed a Christian aesthetic during her first semester at Pepperdine.

“It’s a time where Christianity isn’t as apparent on campuses,” Miles said.

The good and bad about the Christian aesthetic

Of course there are two sides to every coin. As a whole, Pepperdine students said every Christian has their own way of expressing their faith.

On the positive side, some people may really love the Christian aesthetic and can find a lot of value in it, Stottlemyer said. However, if they are just using it as a trend and their faith is ingenuine, they will need to deconstruct that later on to figure out what they really believe.

“I think the most important thing is to check your heart when you’re getting into that area,” Carpenter said.

 Before following a trend, Lemley said Christians should sort out their thoughts of what they really believe and make sure that their intentions are right.

Christian symbols, such as the Christian fish, that are on Christian clothing today, early persecuted Christians used in secret to show they were Christians, Lemley said. Today, people are almost showing off these symbols to gain social status among their Christian peers at Pepperdine.

“If it becomes a substitute for a lived faith, it can create confusion about what Christianity really is,” Lemley said.

Pepperdine students come from different backgrounds

Since Pepperdine is a Christian university, it naturally draws students who share its Christian beliefs. However, Christians on campus come from several different backgrounds with a diversity of beliefs.

The Pepperdine Office of Institutional Effectiveness (OIE) found that the faith identities among students during Fall 2022 are just shy of 8% Church of Christ, 52% Protestant, 17% Roman Catholic, 1% Orthodox, 4% Non-Christian and 19% Unaffiliated.

Pew Research Center found that 64% of the United States population is Christian.

Most Pepperdine students attend nondenominational Protestant churches or cannot name what denomination they attend, according to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness data. Roman Catholics represent the single biggest denomination on campus. 

In addition to different denominations, Pepperdine students had different experiences with Christianity in their childhood. 

Nathaniel Lerch, junior biology major and Pepperdine cross country/track athlete, said he grew up attending Sunday school and youth groups from a young age. If he didn’t have that exposure as a child, he said he would have needed to be taken to some sort of a Christian function, such as The Well, where the Holy Spirit moved him.

“My faith revolves around not just my core values and not just my core beliefs, but a lot of emotions and spirituality,” Lerch said.

Carpenter did not grow up in a Christian home and came to the faith when she was a junior in high school. She said she noticed how much joy, peace and love radiated from one Christian friend and her Christian cousin. Carpenter became curious so she decided to dive into scripture and watch sermons online. She said this was enough to transform her and lead her to devote her life to Jesus Christ.

A Pepp Post poll of 63 students found almost half of the students thought of their faith as very important.

The poll found that most of the students pray once or more a day.

The poll found that half of the students attend church once a week.

The cross at the top of Pepperdine’s campus, one of the trademarks of Pepperdine that indicates it’s a Christian university (Photo by Brooke Bakken).

Acting like a Christian 

Pepperdine students said there is hypocrisy sometimes among students who claim they are a Christian.

Lerch said many of today’s Christians try to form their own ideas of what being a Christian means. People interpret the Bible in different ways to fit their agenda, which he said is not right.

“The Bible is God-ordained and it’s the basis of what our religion should be, so to stray far from it would kind of reduce your validity as a Christian, ” Lerch said.

Lemley said when non-Christians see Christians treating their religion as a trend and not living out their faith, they may question what Christianity is and why it’s so important if these people calling themselves Christians don’t put in effort themselves.

Students said they see people who call themselves Christian contradict their beliefs by worshiping things other than God. These things include alcohol, drugs, sex, and the media. Some Christians idolize the very things that their God says to stay away from. 

Carpenter said it’s important to remember that everyone struggles with different things and some people’s struggles are public whereas some are private, which may be why it seems that some Christians may not always be “acting” Christian.

Lemley said Christians shouldn’t think of religion as a checklist of things to do everyday to live out one’s faith. Instead, in following Jesus, students should seek to cultivate the fruits of the spirit described in the Bible: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Loving others is a big part of Christian living. Lemley talked about John’s writings in the Bible that had this main idea:

“If you can’t love the brother or sister you can see, how can you say that you love God who you can’t see?” Lemley said.

That is what Christianity is about, Lemley said. The little things such as going to church, reading scripture, and praying daily are certainly important. Yet, the big picture of loving and serving others as Jesus did is more important. 

Christians are called to act like Jesus, Lemley said.

How students grow closer to God

“Every Christian goes through seasons where they feel more or less connected to God,” Lemley said.

Some students said they struggled to maintain a close relationship with God throughout the week. Many feel close while worshiping at church or The Well. However, when they leave that space, students said they tend to go on with their normal routines.

“I leave a worship service a part of the church and I think it’s really important for me during the week to stay connected to the people that I worship with,” Lemley said, “the people who have been shaped by that same encounter with God, that same calling, the same sending to be apart of my everyday life.”

Lemley said Christians can stay connected to God by staying connected to the community. A Christian community is a great way to keep one accountable along with having people who can pray for them.

To those who believe they need to reevaluate their faith, there are many resources available right here at Pepperdine, including The Hub for Spiritual Life, SLAs, and religion professors, Ganey said.

Stottlemyer said college is a great time for students to discover their faith and find out the best ways to nurture it.

“Your belief in a higher power is arguably one of the most important things about being a human being,” Stottlemyer said.

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece is on the women’s cross country/track team and attends meets with Nathaniel Lerch. 

Brooke Bakken completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.