When I moved to Fayetteville for my freshman year of college, there were certain things I was prepared for. I expected game days to be crazy and parking to be a nightmare. I expected the dining hall food to be a little gross and the dorms to be loud on Saturday nights. What I was not counting on, though, is the way Christianity permeates the culture in Northwest Arkansas.
I’m from Little Rock, where there are plenty of Christians but religion is not something woven into casual conversation regularly. I went to school with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics and atheists alike. My religious friends were just my friends. Most of the time, I couldn’t tell you if someone went to church every Sunday or if they hadn’t been in 10 years.
The way I saw it, a person’s faith was that person’s business – someone being religious was like someone being on the soccer team or playing the trombone. If it was important to them, I would be supportive and kind, but I didn’t care either way.
When I moved to Fayetteville, everything I knew about Christian culture flew straight out the window. The occasional frightening “ARE YOU READY TO MEET GOD?” billboard on the highway morphed into scripture references and religious undertones just about everywhere – Bible verses on coffee shop walls, churches hosting events on campus, Christian summer camps tabling at the Arkansas Union. There is an evangelical nature to Christianity here that isn’t nearly as present in Little Rock.
It wasn’t necessarily surprising to me that there are a lot of Christians in Fayetteville. Looking at the numbers, it makes sense: around 79% of adults in Arkansas identify as Christian, according to Pew Research Center. The most shocking part – and something I had never experienced firsthand—was Christian-college-kid culture, the kind that turns religion into an “aesthetic.”
There are some telltale signs I use to spot a Christian on campus. Certain ways of dressing, for instance. I never thought I would look at someone wearing a henley, a rope bill hat and Hokas and assume that person is a Christian, but I do.
There is also a specific dialect. I often find myself mentally translating things I hear from Christian friends. If a girl says something like, “He’s pursuing me, but I really need time to be alone with the Lord right now,” I know that means that a boy likes her but she doesn’t want to date him. Words and phrases like “servant-hearted,” “intentional,” “wise” and “genuine” are used to describe friends, and TYJ (“Thank you, Jesus”) has been added to shorthand alongside LOL and WYD.
Then, of course, there is the aesthetic on social media: high-quality photos of scenic mountain landscapes, sunset shots at Mount Sequoyah and disposables from a summer at camp, all with long and thoughtful captions reflecting on life-changing experiences.
For a long time, I tried to emulate the “Christian aesthetic” that I saw around me. I tried to make friends with people who were doing it. I tried to post content like theirs on my social media. I tried to check all the boxes, because these people seemed like they had so much going for them. I created a standard in my head based on the things I had seen and heard, and I consistently fell short. Trying to be like somebody else didn’t bring me any joy.
There is nothing wrong with being a Christian, going to summer camp, using certain words, dressing a certain way or posting high-quality scenic shots on Instagram. For someone who has never experienced that kind of culture, though, it can be a little jarring and hard to live up to. Ultimately, a person’s spirituality is personal to them. Christian or not, no one can be simplified into a certain style of dress or manner of speaking, or understood through an Instagram post.
The best thing people can do on either side of the spiritual divide is empathize. We should all think about the environments we help to create, and how comfortable different groups feel in them. Hopefully, we can create spaces in which people of all backgrounds feel welcome, happy and free to be themselves – no strings attached. At the end of the day, my friends are just my friends.