One of the figures in the Bible who I’m most fond of is the prophet Daniel: mainly because, like me, he was a literature student.

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it […]
Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility – young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians […] They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

It’s not a new observation that there are some interesting similarities here with the university experience! Daniel and his friends are part of a cohort of young men, selected for their aptitude, who are set to study a specific curriculum for three years; at the end of that time, they will be tested and their future careers decided.

Of course, the comparison isn’t exact: enrolling on a modern-day English course doesn’t generally involve forced displacement through conquest, or a royally mandated curriculum and career path (not to mention food and living conditions). But Daniel’s story can prompt useful reflections on living as Christians in a non-Christian culture – particularly as students and academics.

Our experience as Christians in the increasingly post-Christian West can easily be paralleled with that of the Israelites captive in Babylon, and often is. All the captives, not only these young men, found themselves obliged to live in a foreign country with religious beliefs and cultural practices which were totally alien to theirs, and sometimes hostile as well. But Daniel and his friends must have undergone this in a particularly intense way. They were not just living in Babylon, but were immersing themselves in its culture and being groomed to take their places in its power structure. They were clearly expected to demonstrate, and keep demonstrating, their compliance and assimilation.

For me, this resonates to some extent with academic study, perhaps especially in the humanities. Taking a degree at a university is an induction into the culture – both the general history and worldview of the West, and the specific culture of individual fields and institutions. You’re expected to learn the norms of this culture and actively immerse yourself in them, not simply passively absorbing the values as most people do – through the media, in social interactions, through language itself – but reproducing and contributing to them.

It’s interesting, then, to see what Daniel and his friends do. They were in a much more hostile setting than most universities, in a society much more truly pagan than ours. Nonetheless, they don’t reject the work they are given. They learn what they’re set to learn, and do very well (with God’s enabling – Daniel 1:17). They enter the king’s service as expected, and work in that context for the rest of their lives. They embrace a life in Babylon’s culture.

But they also found a way to maintain their allegiance to God. Rather than assimilating completely, these four young men chose a line to hold and held it, at personal risk and cost – they refused to eat the food that had been sent from the king’s table. The exact reasoning behind this choice isn’t certain, but whatever exactly it meant, their stand demonstrates that it was possible for them to keep their service to God intact, even in the midst of an intense training programme in a culture opposed to him.

Daniel and his friends should be a huge encouragement for those of us immersed in the culture of academia. At times it can feel difficult to reconcile Christian ways of thinking and living with the priorities of the modern university, and that tension isn’t always possible to resolve. But Daniel 1 shows us that God’s people have lived before in pagan cultures, and have even studied and contributed to them, while still serving him, still remaining faithful. God himself ‘gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom’: may this be true for us too.

Alicia Smith
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Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020. She lives and works in Oxford.